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 S101A
Madison, WI 53705
Lifespan Family Research

Research Statement

Drawing from my training in 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. Currently I am an investigator on two separate longitudinal studies of premutation carrier mothers and their children with FXS (one study focuses on families whose children are transitioning from childhood into adolescence and one study focuses on families whose children are adolescents and adults); these studies will help us understand biological and contextual influences on outcomes for children with FXS and their mothers.

In addition to longitudinal research, my work focuses on translating research findings into targeted interventions for youth and young adults with ASD. One recently completed randomized waitlist control study found that a multi-family group psychoeducation intervention, Transitioning Together, was beneficial for adolescents with ASD and their parents in terms of increases in social engagement for teens and improvements in depressive symptoms and problem-solving for parents. This program has now been implemented in clinical practice in six US states and one Canadian province, with a cultural adaptation of the model available for Spanish-speaking families. I am currently a PI on an NIMH-funded project to test a similar multi-family group psychoeducation intervention for young adults with ASD entitled Working Together. Along with Waisman Center Investigators Drs. Marsha Mailick, Jan Greenberg, and Janet Lainhart, I aim to understand how to improve employment and postsecondary educational outcomes for young adults with ASD. I also am a co-principal investigator for a national center on secondary education for students with ASD (CSESA) funded by the Institute of Education Sciences which aims to test a comprehensive treatment model for high school students with ASD. This study includes over 500 students from 60 high schools across the country (including 20 high schools in Wisconsin) and is a collaboration with colleagues at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and San Diego State University.

Selected Publications