Elizabeth Newson, 1929-2014

A pioneering developmental psychologist and authority on childhood autism has died

March 20, 2014

Elizabeth Newson (née Palmer) was born in North London on 8 April 1929, but spent most of the war years in North Wales and Bristol. She later claimed that it was the birth of her first sister, and reading her mother’s childcare manual, that spurred her interest in the field.

After the war, she studied psychology at University College London, despite the efforts of a dean to persuade her that it was a “rather morbid” subject for a young woman. It was there that she met John Newson, who would become her husband and lifelong collaborator.

They both graduated in 1951, and when a post in the Belgian Congo fell through, they moved to Nottingham. John took up a lectureship at the University of Nottingham and Elizabeth initially worked at a primary school, although she joined Nottingham’s psychology department as a research student the following year. She would be appointed professor of developmental psychology in 1990.

In 1958 she and John founded Nottingham’s Child Development Research Unit. They were seeking, she said, “to answer the questions that naturally seemed to arise in the day-to-day practice of parenthood”. They initially interviewed 700 new parents and followed up when the children were aged 4, 7, 11 and 16. The data this generated formed the basis for their celebrated studies, from Infant Care in an Urban Community (1963) to Perspectives on School at Seven Years Old (with Peter Barnes, 1977).

In later years, Professor Newson focused increasingly on autism, identifying a particular type known as pathological demand avoidance syndrome (PDA) and helping to establish Sutherland House, a school for children with autism. She was also closely involved in creating a diagnostic service, which later became the Elizabeth Newson Centre, and a toy library for parents of children with disabilities.

Peter Barnes, who worked as part of the Newsons’ research team and went on to become director of the Centre for Childhood, Development and Learning at The Open University, recalls Professor Newson as “down-to-earth, approachable and caring in every aspect of her life. Conversation at the working lunches – yes, even in the 1970s – was invariably lively, fuelled by exotic salads concocted by John, the latest toy Elizabeth had bought for the playroom, the work of a newly discovered potter destined for the family-run shop in Enfield, the gossip brought back from the latest student placements…”

Professor Newson died of a stroke on 6 February 2014 and is survived by a son, two daughters and four grandchildren.


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