Leann Smith DaWalt, PhD

Senior Scientist, Waisman Center

Leann Smith DaWalt, PhD

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

Waisman Center
1500 Highland Ave
Room 549
Madison, WI 53705
Lab Website: Lifespan Family Research – Working Together

Research Statement

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 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 such as ASDs 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. Accordingly, I apply a lifespan developmental perspective to my work, utilizing longitudinal analytic techniques to explore linked trajectories of development within the family system. As an example, I have explored the impact of the family environment on changes in autism symptoms and behavior problems for adolescents and adults with ASD, highlighting the family environment as an important, positive context for development.

Another area of my research is the development and evaluation of a family psychoeducation intervention for adolescents with ASD and their parents called Transitioning Together. With support from UW-Madison’s Institute for Clinical and Translational Research (ICTR; 1UL1RR025011), we developed the intervention curriculum based on (a) past findings from our research group and (b) findings from focus groups with parents and service providers. The resulting Transitioning Together program involves weekly education and support group sessions for parents which cover topics such as transition planning, problem solving, and legal issues. At the same place and time as the parent group sessions, adolescents also meet to participate in social skill group sessions which involve a variety of games and learning activities. We initially piloted tested the program with 11 initial families, with promising results. We are currently continuing this work with a recent grant from Autism Speaks. This research is done in collaboration with other Waisman Center Investigators including Marsha Mailick Seltzer, Jan Greenberg, and Christopher Coe.

Selected Publications