Leann Smith DaWalt, PhD

Position title: Director, University Center for Excellence In Developmental Disabilities

Leann Smith DaWalt, PhD

PhD, University of Notre Dame
Director, University Center for Excellence In Developmental Disabilities
Senior Scientist, Waisman Center

Waisman Center
1500 Highland Ave
Room S101B
Madison, WI 53705
Lifespan Family Research

Research Statement

As a lifespan developmental psychology, in my research I employ multilevel modeling and other longitudinal techniques to answer questions of behavioral continuity and change for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) and their families across the life course, with a specific emphasis on adolescents and adults with IDD and the contextual factors associated with positive outcomes. My work also centers on translating the results of longitudinal research into timely and effective treatments and services for the populations that I study.

My research focuses on understanding the impact of having a child with a developmental disability on the family as well as the role of the family and community in supporting healthy development for individuals with disabilities such as autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) and fragile X syndrome (FXS). We know that parenting a child with a developmental disability can present many unique challenges for families. In one of our past studies, we have found that mothers of adolescents and adults with ASD were three times more likely to experience a stressful event on a given day than mothers of similarly-aged children without disabilities. Given the high level of stress experienced by many parents, I am interested in the interplay of stress, coping, and social support for parents of children with developmental disabilities and the subsequent impact that stress can have on parental health and well-being.

Developmental disabilities are lifelong conditions and families of children with developmental disabilities continue to be active contributors to their children’s lives not only during the childhood years, but also during adolescence and adulthood. We have found that the family factors such as warmth and positivity can impact changes in behavioral profiles over time for adolescents and adults with disabilities (i.e., ASD, FXS), highlighting the family environment as an important, positive context for development across the life course. Extending this work, my colleagues and I are currently conducting a NIH-funded study to examine family and community factors that promote stability in work and positive health and mental health for autistic adults.

My research also focuses on developing and evaluating interventional treatments for youth and young adults with developmental disabilities. Based on findings from our longitudinal research on adolescents and adults with ASD, I led the development and evaluation of a multi-family group psychoeducation treatment for adolescents with ASD and their families — Transitioning Together. Using a randomized clinical trial, we demonstrated improvements in parents’ mental health and problem-solving skills, and improvements in social skills for their adolescents with ASD. We have subsequently adapted this program for Spanish-speaking families and for implementation in high school settings. We also have evaluated a similar program for families of autistic young adults, with significant impacts on behavioral functioning and engagement in work and post-secondary education. Relatedly, using an implementation science framework, I led research as Co-PI evaluating a comprehensive treatment model in 60 US high schools for over 500 youth with ASD as part of the Center for Secondary Education for Students with ASD.

Selected Publications