VKC publishes new resources focusing on connection between mental health and intellectual, developmental disabilities

Covers of three booklets

Research has increasingly shown a co-occurrence (also known as comorbidity) of intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) and mental health disorders such as anxiety, depression, and aggressive or compulsive behavior. The Vanderbilt Kennedy Center (VKC) has released three new publications addressing mental health in individuals with IDD.

Trauma Tip Sheet

The first publication is a Tips and Resources fact sheet titled “Trauma and Individuals with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.” The one-page tip sheet is a collaborative effort between the VKC and the University of Tennessee Boling Center for Developmental Disabilities, Tennessee’s two University Centers of Excellence in Developmental Disabilities (UCEDD).

“It’s always exciting to draw upon the expertise of our network partners to create new resources,” said Courtney Taylor, associate director of communication and dissemination at the VKC. “Chan Dunn, a social worker at the Boling Center, was a fantastic partner in developing the content of the Tips and Resources fact sheet on trauma. Her professional experiences and knowledge ensured a high-quality product that I know will assist those who may need help identifying what trauma can look like and how it can be addressed.”

Trauma is defined as experiences or situations that are emotionally painful or distressing. Traumatic experiences can include adverse life events such as poverty, abuse, and neglect; bullying and negative behavior from peers; or the loss of a parent or caregiver. How we experience and process trauma can be very individualized. However, those with IDD may have increased difficulty managing trauma and its repercussions in a healthy way. Readers can learn how to recognize trauma in individuals with IDD, treatment options available, and techniques clinicians may apply when working with an individual with IDD who has experienced trauma.

Mental Health Toolkit

The VKC’s Treatment and Research Institute on Autism Spectrum Disorders (TRIAD) teamed up with the Vanderbilt Consortium LEND (Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental and Related Disabilities) to produce a product titled “Addressing Mental Health Needs in Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders: A Toolkit for Educators.” For this toolkit, LEND trainee and TRIAD postdoctoral fellow Sara Francis, Ph.D., worked with TRIAD’s Whitney Loring, Psy.D., and Verity Rodrigues, Ph.D., to provide school personnel and related professionals with information, tools, and strategies to support students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and co-occurring mental health challenges.

Loring is assistant professor of Pediatrics and Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences and director of TRIAD’s Families First Program, and Rodrigues serves as instructor of Pediatrics, clinical psychologist, and TRIAD educational consultant.

“I spent the year as a long-term LEND trainee learning about neurodevelopmental and related disabilities directly from professionals outside of psychology,” said Francis. “The opportunity to then partner with educators and share information about students’ mental health needs from a psychological perspective was a new role and one I hope to continue in the future.”

Research shows that the rate of mental health disorders in children with ASD is 4 to 6 times higher than the general population, and children with ASD often meet the criteria for more than one disorder.

“In creating the online mental health toolkit, our hope was to provide information that can support students with ASD and co-occurring mental health concerns in an accessible format to educators across the state of Tennessee,” said Rodrigues. “The toolkit includes information on ASD and common co-occurring mental health concerns, like anxiety and depression, as well as easy-to-implement strategies teachers and other educators can use in the classroom to support students exhibiting mental health concerns.”

transition to adulthood report

Resource available soon. Email kc@vumc.org for more information.

Transition to Adulthood

VKC investigator and associate professor of Pediatrics Julie Lounds Taylor, Ph.D., published a final report on recent research titled “Transition to Adulthood for Youth with Autism.” The project was supported by a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health), with core support from the VKC and the Vanderbilt Institute for Clinical and Translational Research.

The exit out of high school and into the adult world can be a challenging time for youth with ASD and their families. Previous research has found that after youth with ASD leave high school, they experience a slowing of improvement in their autism symptoms, behavior problems, and daily living skills. Taylor and her team worked with 41 families of young adults with autism in their last year of high school to try to understand the changes that occur during those transition years. In addition to examining hopes and dreams of these students with autism, they studied patterns of service access, factors associated with unmet service needs, and predictors of stable post-secondary activities in the years after high school exit.

One analysis described in this report, conducted in collaboration with Dr. Katherine Gotham, assistant professor of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences, examined rates of mental health problems and their relationship to traumatic experiences.

“This project confirmed multiple other studies finding very high rates of anxiety and depression among youth and adults on the autism spectrum,” said Taylor. “We hope that reports such as this will shine a light on the need for increased and improved mental health services for these individuals.”

During the study, Taylor questioned the participants with a list of 27 potentially traumatic life events, finding that every individual in the sample had experienced at least one major life event, with an average of four events per person. The most common events included the death of someone close to youth as a result of accident, injury, or illness (55.6%); life-threatening injury or illness of someone in the home (50%); parental divorce/separation (30.6%); and unemployment within the home (30.6%).

“Experiencing at least one traumatic event was related to a greater chance of demonstrating mood problems in youth with ASD,” said Taylor. “This suggests that trauma might be significant in the development of co-occurring psychiatric problems in individuals with ASD. However, we also found there were many youth who experienced a traumatic event who did not develop a mood disorder. An important future direction of research will be to understand what is different about those youth with ASD who experience trauma and go on to develop clinical-level mood symptoms versus those who do not.

“It is important also to note that mood and anxiety disorders were very common among the youth with ASD in this sample,” she said. “Only one-third of the youth had no/little evidence of mood or anxiety symptoms, and nearly 50 percent had symptoms that were severe enough to meet criteria for clinical-level mood or anxiety symptoms. Co-occurring psychiatric symptoms are an important consideration during the transition to adulthood, and should be addressed.”

Click here to view the peer reviewed publication referenced in the research report.

Visit the VKC’s Printable Resources and Materials page for additional resources and reports. Tip sheets on specific intellectual and developmental disabilities and other varied topics may be found here. For more information, call (615) 322-8240 or email kc@vumc.org.

Elizabeth Turner is associate program manager for VKC Communications.

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