Research in Social Psychology

Researching the Psychosocial Well-Being of Siblings of Children with Disabilities

By Catrina Combis


Through UMass Dartmouth Honors Program and thanks to a research grant from the OUR, I launched a research study titled “The Relationship Between Having a Sibling with a Developmental Disability and Indicators of the Typically Developing Sibling’s Psychosocial Well-Being.” While brainstorming ideas in an introductory Psychology class at the beginning of my research process, I immediately thought of my own sibling. My sibling was diagnosed with anxiety and depression while we were both in high school, and the consequent unusual behaviors greatly impacted all of our lives. As a Psychology major I strove to learn more about my sibling’s diagnoses, and decided to dedicate my professional life to children with developmental disabilities.



Left to right: Ramzy Rajeh, Kimberly Schoener, Dr. Christina Cipriano, and Catrina Combis. Rajeh and Schoener help code Combis’s interviews and Dr. Cipriano is Combis’s supervisor.


The purpose of my OUR-funded research is to determine how having a sibling with a developmental disability impacts a typically developing sibling (TDS). Once concluded, this research will hopefully fill the gap in the current knowledge about the TDS’s psychosocial well-being as well as other factors, including the relationship they have with their parents. It is essential to understand the relationship between both siblings in order to comprehend how that relationship affects the development and life of the TDS. The research will also highlight the indicators of the TDS’s psychosocial well-being.


When a member of a family receives a medical diagnosis, it can have layers of impact on the larger family unit. Siblings of children with developmental disabilities are a classically understudied population. Only recently has there been a rise in studies on siblings of children with developmental disabilities (Stoneman, 2005). Sibling relationships are one of the most significant relationships that humans develop and are strongly related to psychosocial adjustment (Pollard, Barry, Freedman, & Kotchick, 2013). Although much is known about the impact and trajectory of the child with a developmental disability, less is known about their siblings.

Developmental disability is operationalized in this research as they are described in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The IDEA federally mandates that schools serve the educational needs of eligible students with disabilities and ensures students with disabilities have access to a free and appropriate public education (FAPE). It includes a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Intellectual Disability, Multiple Handicap, Emotional-Behavioral Disorder, and Learning Disability. Typical development is operationalized as the absence of an IDEA designation. Under the direction of Dr. Christina Cipriano, Assistant Professor in the Psychology Department, I submitted and received IRB approval to compile a list of psycho-educational batteries alongside my own developed questionnaire, to assess TDS mental health and well-being in the community. Using the Qualtrics platform, I recruited and surveyed participants, and then randomly selected a proportion of participants to take part in an information gathering interview. I am currently analyzing the Qualtrics and interview data using a mixed-methods approach. These include descriptive and inferential analyses, and open coding for themes. I will be presenting my findings at the Annual Meeting of the Council for Excepional Children (CEC) in Boston this Spring and will be writing up my findings for publication in a peer-reviewed psychology journal.



I have always enjoyed spending my time with children since my teenage years and this interest has been furthered by the professional connections I have developed during my undergraduate education: While a student at UMass Dartmouth, I have worked for and interned for various organizations involving children. I worked for the America Reads Program through UMass Dartmouth’s Leduc Center for Civic Engagement where I tutored and mentored students in schools and after school programs in Fall River and New Bedford. I also interned with the South Coast Autism Center where I modeled social skills for young boys with Autism and learned a lot more about Autism through observing and interacting with many children. I am currently interning with Horizons for Homeless Children where I play and interact with homeless children in homeless shelters that have established therapeutic play spaces. As an undergraduate student, I have also worked for two professors, Dr. Christina Cipriano and Dr. Meredith Dove, on their respective research studies. Dr. Cipriano’s research is on the Recognizing Excellence in Learning and Teaching (RELATE) tool for special education classroom observation. Dr. Dove’s research is on nutrition and physical activity in childcare settings.  My experiences with children along with the research opportunities at UMass Dartmouth, have formed my professional trajectory. Right now I am in the process of preparing my applications for graduate school and I look forward to pursuing a career in supporting children and their families.



Pollard, C. A., Barry, C. M., Freedman, B. H., and Kotchick, B. A. (2013). Relationship quality as a moderator of anxiety in siblings of children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders or down syndrome. Journal of Child and Family Studies 22 (5), 647-657. doi:10.1007/s10826-012-9618-9

Stoneman, Z. (2005). Siblings of children with disabilities: Research themes. Mental Retardation 43 (5), 339-350.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *