Attachment in intellectual disabilities: A systematic review of parental reaction to diagnosis in the early years and a study into the contribution of attachment to challenging behaviour.

  • Lynsey Fulton

Student thesis: Doctor of Clinical Psychology


This thesis explored attachment in individuals with intellectual disability (ID). It investigated the role attachment may have in presenting difficulties such as challenging behaviour, which is an area much researched within other populations. It also considered parental well-being in the early years following diagnosis and the implications this may have for attachment development. Paper 1 describes a systematic review of the literature on parental response and adaptation to a child' diagnosis of an ID in the early years. The news of a child's diagnosis can be met with a range of intense emotions however, existing research reports conflicting outcomes regarding the nature of parental reactions and the psychological impact that may result. 12 studies were reviewed with one study demonstrating a strong methodology. The review found that the comparison groups used within studies had an important bearing on how effectual parental response and adaptation appeared. Due to the limited literature available and the methodological variation within the reviewed studies, no clear conclusions could be drawn. Paper 2 describes an empirical study which investigated the contribution of attachment behaviour to engagement in challenging behaviour, whilst considering other variables, in adults with ID. 22 service staff completed assessment questionnaires which examined service user attachment behaviour, level of adaptive ability, challenging behaviour and other variables. The relationships between particular variables were analysed. Results showed that level of adaptive ability was significantly related to attachment behaviour and challenging behaviour. Attachment behaviour was also significantly related to challenging behaviour, particularly social withdrawal and lethargy. However, when adaptive behaviour was controlled for the significance of these relationships disappeared. Therefore attachment behaviour did appear to contribute to challenging behaviour but less significantly than level of adaptive ability. The nature of the interaction between these three key variables is unclear and requires further research. Findings support the implementation of effective attachment based interventions alongside evidence based behavioural strategies. This would be particularly important for those at high risk of attachment and behavioural difficulties, which current and previous findings suggest may be those with ASD and those with lower levels of ability. Paper 3 describes the strengths and limitations of the systematic review and empirical paper. The research process, findings and clinical implications from each of the previous papers are discussed and reflected upon.
Date of Award31 Dec 2013
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorDougal Hare (Supervisor)


  • Reaction
  • Down syndrome
  • Parent
  • Intellectual disability
  • Attachment
  • Diagnosis
  • Challenging behaviour

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