Catherine Purcell is a Reader in the School of Healthcare Sciences at Cardiff University. Catherine obtained her BSc (hons) in Psychology from the Open University and went on to complete an MSc in Cognitive Neuroscience and Research Methods at University of Durham followed by a PhD at Royal Holloway University of London. It was during her PhD, which explored the perceptual judgements of children with neurodivergence at the roadside, that her passion for Specific Learning Difficulties began. Since her PhD Catherine’s research has focused on neurodivergent children and adults and she is now a member of the Developmental Coordination Disorder UK Committee (DCD-UK) and the Vice Chair of the International Society for Research and Advocacy in Developmental Coordination Disorder (ISRA-DCD), which has representatives from 26 countries. Catherine’s career has evolved from experimental research to research with neurodivergent people through co-production, co-design and co-creation. Catherine has become an advocate for neurodivergence and proactively engages in activities that have the potential to influence policy.
How did you became interested in learning diffculties?
After my MSc in Cognitive Neuroscience and Research Methods at University of Durham, I was determined to undertake a PhD. I found an ESRC funded PhD studentship advertised at Royal Holloway, University of London that was titled ‘Perceptual errors in predicting vehicle approach in typical and atypical populations’, I applied and following interview I was delighted to be offered this opportunity. Apart from reading about specific learning difficulties (SpLD) in textbooks during my undergraduate degree in Psychology, this was the first time I had explored this field in depth. Under the expert supervision of Professor John Wann, to whom I am forever indebted, my passion for the field started to develop and I have never looked back. Following my PhD, I joined The Dyscovery Centre, led by Professor Amanda Kirby, which offered multi-disciplinary assessment and intervention to children and adults with SpLD, the experience of working with practitioners widened my focus and helped to shape the researcher that I am today.
Can you give us an overview of your work?
My work has evolved over my 12 year career in this field. My PhD was entirely experimental, with a focus on the mechanisms underlying SpLD. Although some of my work still explores underlying mechanisms, for example I have just completed a funded project looking at the neural correlates of Developmental Coordination Disorder (DCD), over the years I have become much more passionate about ensuring that my work makes a difference to the lives of neurodivergent children and adults. As a consequence, my current research looks to involve neurodivergent communities in order to identify research priorities and co-design research. For example, I am currently involved in the Impact for DCD study in the UK, this is a nationwide survey of parents of children with DCD to identify challenges in the domains of diagnosis, activity and participation, education, therapy and social and emotional health, experienced by children and their families. The findings from this survey will enable the DCD UK research community to identify priority research areas identified by families. Another example that has been driven by families alongside existing literature is a £1.3m funding application with international colleagues to co-design resources that promote and enable active travel for young people with Developmental Coordination Disorder, with a view to long-term behaviour change.
What are your most recent and exciting results?
The most recent project that I have just completed titled: ‘the neural correlates of children with DCD’ found that the Action Observation Network in children with DCD was less selective than their typically developing peers. Furthermore, children with lower motor scores and lower attention scores showed less activity in the Action Observation Network. Arguably, most importantly the Action Observation Network in children with DCD does not seem to be filtering out irrelevant moving shapes. The implications of these findings are that, when learning new motor tasks children with DCD might find it easier if there aren’t any distracting movements going on around them. Children with DCD may also benefit from consciously directing their attention to the motor task they are trying to learn.
What do you think are the main challenges in this research field?
The main challenge in this research field is funding. Research funding is being squeezed and the lack of awareness of hidden disabilities make securing research funding for SpLD very challenging. This isn’t helped by the differences in language used across nations and sectors. In addition, research that positions SpLD as a difference rather than a disorder and attempts to take a salutogenic (rather than pathogenic) approach appears to be even less attractive to funders.
What are the most pressing research priorities?
I am not the best person to ask as I believe that future research priorities need to come from people living with neurodivergence. That said, I would imagine that a list of research priorities would probably include: co-producing better educational experiences of children with SpLD; identifying the most effective pathways to diagnosis; identifying the most effective interventions; demonstrating the effectiveness of prevention and exploring the efficacy of diagnostic and intervention pathways for adults.