Working with Adults with Developmental Disabilities

The need for and availability of mental health care for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities is vast. Here are a few ideas for how psychologists may help meet that demand. 

As more people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) reach adulthood, they may face a variety and severity of mental health difficulties that significantly outnumber the availability of specialist mental health clinicians, such as psychologists. Anxiety disorders, depression, and suicidal thoughts, as well as life’s more ordinary emotional obstacles, can all have an influence on individuals with IDD. Their vulnerability may be increased in some circumstances. According to a recent study that looked at suicide rates in Utah from 2013 to 2017, people living with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) were more likely to die than those who did not have an ASD diagnosis. 

“This population [of people with IDD] is so underserved, and there is such a need [that] there’s not many psychologists who have a lot of experience working with people with developmental disabilities.” 

Lisa Neitzke, PhD, BCBA, Psychologist at the Munroe-Meyer Institute at the University of Nebraska Medical Center

The difficulties begin with limited training opportunities for psychologists, which has one of the few graduate programs in the United States that offers training in working with individuals with IDD across the life span. 

“The payment may not be at a level that these professionals want for the time they put in, [but they] refuse to see individuals with an intellectual disability because they don’t feel comfortable with the developmental condition.” 

Marc Tassé, PhD, Professor in the Ohio State University’s Department of Psychology

Tassé pointed out that reimbursement rates don’t assist because these adults are frequently insured by Medicaid and their treatment can take a long period.

However, Tassé and other psychologists who work with these individuals believe that, given the access gap, more psychologists must step up, even if simply to treat patients on an as-needed basis. To give the best care possible, psychologists may need to consult with a trained colleague, which can be arranged through organizations such as the National Association for the Dually Diagnosed (NADD). Depending on the patient’s cognitive level and other challenges, they may need to change their time frame and method. He also advised them to avoid mistakes that weaken trust and rapport, such as communicating exclusively with a family member or caretaker. 

Nonetheless, Neitzke, believes that the larger framework of cognitive behavioral therapy and other treatment regimens apply to adults with autism, Down syndrome, and other types of IDD. “Know that you have a strong skill set and that a lot of the training that you have working with neurotypical adults does generalize to the IDD population,” she said. 

“You might have to make a few adaptations, but you have the skill set, you know the content, you know the strategies to utilize. Then it’s more of refining the art of the therapy.” 

Information From American Psychological Association

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Author

Yaren Ay

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