Helping distressed people with intellectual disabilities to manage their chaotic emotions

Peer-reviewed article
(2022 Jul) Research and Practice in Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, 10 1-15


Clegg JA & Lansdall-Welfare R


In Anglophone countries, the 40% of people with intellectual disabilities who show challenging behaviour, mental health problems, or both, are usually offered behavioural rather than emotional interventions. Yet much of their distress has originated in emotionally damaging personal histories, since children with intellectual disabilities are much more likely to experience adverse childhood experiences that predict significant mental health problems in adults. This clinical research review addresses that. It raises two issues: first, provision of effective support to parents (considered elsewhere); and second (the focus of this article), how services for distressed adults can address the untapped potential for development and growth in their emotional lives. A key finding in favour of an attachment perspective is that the emotional development of people with intellectual disabilities lags significantly behind their cognitive development, and their level of emotional rather than cognitive development predicts challenging behaviour. Two attachment assessments that can frame intervention have been considered: the Scale of Emotional Development–Short; and the Adult Attachment Projective Picture System. Related system changes necessary for services to implement attachment-informed interventions were then identified: specialisation rather than eclecticism, ensuring that trauma-informed care is applied with fidelity, and staff stability.