School of Education

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Debra Costley

Associate Professor, Faculty of Social Sciences



Dr Debra Costley has over thirty years of experience in education, particularly special education, in the UK, Australia and the USA. She has worked in special schools, further and higher education in Australia and the UK and most recently was National Director, Aspect Practice for Autism Spectrum Australia (Aspect). This involved managing multiple research and evaluation projects and using outcomes in conjunction with evidence informed practice to develop consultancies and workshops for a range of organizations in the Asia Pacific region.

Autism Spectrum Australia runs 9 independent special schools for children on the autism spectrum in New South Wales and South Australia where the education is based on the Aspect Comprehensive Approach for Education (ACAE). Debra was instrumental in researching the elements that make up a comprehensive education model for students on the autism spectrum and worked with a team of teachers to develop a Manual for the approach, which as well as being used in all Aspect schools is now used a basis for consultancies in Singapore, Malaysia and China.

Debra is passionate about translating research into practice and finding innovative ways to close the research to practice gap.

Expertise Summary

Dr Debra Costley has an international reputation in the field of autism across the lifespan, with a particular focus on education. Her research in the last eight years has been focused on autism, interventions, and outcomes for children and adults. Examples of interventions evaluated include, Treatment and Education of Autistic and Related Communication Handicapped Children (TEACCH); Pivotal Response Training (PRT); Secret Agent Society social and emotional skills program (SAS); Language Acquisition through Motor Planning (LAMP); and iPads for teaching and learning. Debra was lead author on a book based on research and practical experience aimed at teachers in mainstream schools called A Practical Guide for Teachers of Students with an Autism Spectrum Disorder in Secondary Education. In addition, Debra led the first national projects in Australia that gathered the views of adults and adolescents on a range of subjects from education to employment, in order to identify their experiences, needs and aspirations. These two studies have been used to influence Government policy in Australia and have been published in a variety of forms, including full and summary reports, journal articles, and most recently a book entitled Shining a Light on the Autism Spectrum: Experiences and Aspiration of Adults.

Previous research was focused on vocational and workplace education and more general special education. In addition, Debra is interested in research methods and has specialized in evaluation.

Debra has always worked to ensure research outcomes are accessible to professionals and parents as well as the general community. To facilitate this translation of research to practice Debra has set up new initiatives in universities and a not-for-profit organization to share research and professional knowledge through workshops, consultancy, publications in a range of forms, forums and conferences.

The School of Education has asked Debra to establish a programme of continuing professional development for teachers based on previous experience and utilising the exceptional research knowledge and practical experience of staff within the School. The program can be found on the School of Education website.

Teaching Summary

Dr Debra Costley is interested in special education, inclusive education and professional practice. In addition, she is very interested in research, evaluation, evidence informed practice, and… read more

Research Summary

Dr Costley is currently establishing links for new projects in the UK, which will focus on special education, with a particular interest in autism in education. She is keen to build a network of… read more

Recent Publications

July 2014 - appointed to a Conjoint Senior Lecturer position in the School of Psychiatry, Faculty of Medicine at the University of New South Wales

December 2015 - appointed Fellow in the School of Education at the University of Wollongong

February 2016 - appointed Research Fellow at the University of Sydney.

All three positions were based on my strong research and supervision partnerships with those universities.

Dr Debra Costley is interested in special education, inclusive education and professional practice. In addition, she is very interested in research, evaluation, evidence informed practice, and practice based inquiry.

Current Research

Dr Costley is currently establishing links for new projects in the UK, which will focus on special education, with a particular interest in autism in education. She is keen to build a network of collaborators in the UK.

Debra has two new projects in development. The first is an investigation of the strategies used by young people on the autism spectrum to cope with anxiety in schools, particularly focussing on masking behaviours. Debra has a Research Development Grant from the School of Education to establish the first phase of this project, which involves co-researchers who are young people on the spectrum. This group of young adults will take part in focus groups (for which they will be paid) to help design the next phase of the project which will be a questionnaire for secondary school students. In addition to the autistic adults, the project investigators are Dr Danielle Ropar and Dr Elizabeth Sheppard, from Psychology and Dr Anne Emerson from the School of Education.

The second project in development is based on a Peer Education program developed by a colleague from Australia, Dr Mitch Byrne from the University of Wollongong. The 8 week intervention program aims to develop knowledge, awareness, attitudes and behavioural intent in whole school year groups about difference, with the aim of reducing stigma and bullying. The original project particularly focussed on knowledge and understanding about autism, but this can be broadened to encompass a range of differences. Our third partner is Ian Dale from the National Autistic Society. We are currently applying for funding for this project.

Past Research

Dr Debra Costley has been a researcher for over twenty years and has worked in university research centres at the University of Warwick in the UK and Western Sydney University in Australia. During that time she has carried out numerous research projects in the areas of education, special education, vocational and work-based learning. Relevant projects are listed below:

Projects at the University of Warwick



Title of study



Establishing the Qualification Requirements for the Engineering Sector.

Hertfordshire Learning and Skills Council/ b2e


Evaluation of the Provision of Work Experience Programmes by Hertfordshire Careers Service.

Enfield Education Business Partnership/ Made in London


Evaluation of the Perceptions of Teachers' and Pupils' of Manufacturing in London.



Establishing the Qualification Requirements for the Environmental and Land-based Sector.

ACCAC ( The Qualifications, Curriculum and Assessment Authority for Wales)


Evaluation of the Work Related Learning Framework for Wales.

Cross River Partnership


Manual of education business links activity in London.



Evaluation of the feasibility of the concept of 'graduation' for 18 year olds.

Lantra National Training Organisation (for the land-based sector)


The 'supply side' provision of education and training in the land-based sector, to support Work Force Development Plans.



Evaluation of the introduction of the key skills qualification.



Evaluation of the Key Skills Support Programme.

The Scottish Office


Students with Disabilities and/or Learning Difficulties in Further Education and Training. Literature review to support the Beattie Committee.

The Library and Information Commission.


Research into the business applications of libraries.

The University of Warwick and Coventry and Warwick Training and Enterprise Council.


Higher level vocational qualifications and their value to SMEs.

Projects at the University of Western Sydney

National Institute for Quality Teaching and School Leadership (NIQTSL)


Project to provide a literature review and national consultations to identify the features of quality teaching and school leadership in Australia.

Fairfield Community Resource Centre (FCRC)


Project to evaluate the impact of a new program to support un-employed adults on benefit payments to re-engage with the workforce.

University of Western Sydney Research Fellowship sponsored by Delfin Lend Lease


Project to research the impact of master planned housing developments on education and employment in two states in Australia.

Department of Education, Science and Technology (Federal)


School Teachers' Secondments and Placements in Higher Education Teaching Faculties in Australia.

Dr Costley was National Director for Aspect Research and Practice during which time she was responsible for growing the research unit at Autism Spectrum Australia, including leading Aspect's role in the Federally funded Autism Cooperative Research Centre. Relevant projects are listed below:

Projects at Autism Spectrum Australia (Aspect)



Title of Study

Autism Spectrum Australia


Evaluation of the Aspect Movie Club Social Skills Program for Children with Autism in mainstream schools.

Australian Research Council funded Discovery Project led by the University of Sydney


Levelling the Playing Field: Starting with the School Playground.

Autism Spectrum Australia (Aspect)


Investigation of the experiences, aspirations and needs of adolescents with Asperger's Syndrome and high functioning autism.

Autism Spectrum Australia (Aspect)


The Use of iPads in Education; the Aspect iPad Trial.

Australian Research Council funded Linkage project led by Macquarie University


The efficacy of models for educational service delivery for students with autism spectrum disorders.

Autism Spectrum Australia (Aspect)


'We Belong': Investigating the experiences, aspirations and needs of adults with Asperger's Syndrome and high functioning autism.

Autism Spectrum Australia (Aspect) in partnership with Liberator Pty. Ltd., Adelaide, SA


An Evaluation of the Language Acquisition through Motor Planning (LAMP) Program with Students with ASD.

Autism Spectrum Australia (Aspect) in conjunction with the University of Canberra


An evaluation of the Aspect Model Class: Pivotal Response Training (PRT) Program.

Autism Spectrum Australia (Aspect)


Peer Support Networks: an Evaluation of the Aspect Social Clubs Program.

Catholic Schools Office of the Broken Bay Diocese, NSW


Literature review and recommendations for the teaching of sex education to high school students with ASD in the Catholic school system.

Australian Research Council funded Linkage project led by the University of Sydney


Evaluation of the Secret Agent Society emotion recognition and social skills program.

Autism Spectrum Australia (Aspect)


Aspect Comprehensive Approach for Education.

Autism Spectrum Australia (Aspect)


Where are they now? A preliminary study to evaluate the long-term outcomes for students with autism graduating from the Aspect Satellite Class Program.

Catholic Schools Office of the Broken Bay Diocese, NSW


Support Strategies for teachers of senior high school students with ASD in mainstream schools.

Autism Spectrum Australia (Aspect) in conjunction with the University of Canberra


An independent outcome study of a TEACCH intervention for children with autism.

Projects supported as part of Autism Cooperative Research Centre (ACRC) - Federally funded for 8 years

CRC Program 1: Diagnosis and early intervention

Autism Biobank

Family Support Program

Early Intervention Sub-types

CRC Program 2: Education

Longitudinal Study of Australian Students Educational Needs Analysis

Structured Teaching (staying on task and transitioning between tasks)

Early Years Behaviour Support Program School Connectedness

Transition Models of Practice

CRC Program 3: Finding a Place in Society

Longitudinal Study of Adults with ASD Development of Vocational Tools

Health and Well-being of Adults

Longitudinal Study of Needs of School Leavers

Community Mobility: Public Transport

Future Research

Dr Debra Costley is interested in developing her research portfolio to include whole school approaches to the inclusion of students with special educational needs in the UK, with a focus on Universal Design for Learning and planned transitions. She is also looking for opportunities to build on her experience and expertise of the opportunities available for young people with additional needs for transition post school.

Dr Costley is experienced in qualitative and quantitative methods which she uses individually or in combination depending on the research questions and expected outputs and outcomes.

She is also an expert in evaluation and has been a member of the Australasian Evaluation Society for over ten years.

School of Education

University of Nottingham
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