Understanding of the Effects of Conditioned Aversive Stimuli on Behavior in Adults With ID Who Have Experienced Trauma

By Elizabeth Houck, 2022 awardee of an Innovative Student Research – Doctoral Dissertation Grant

Elizabeth Houck earned her BA in neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University and her M.Ed. from the University of Texas at Austin. She is currently a Ph.D. candidate at the University of North Texas, working with Dr. Joseph Dracobly. Elizabeth’s primary areas of research include the assessment and treatment of severe problem behavior and behavior changes following trauma for people with intellectual disabilities (ID).

The awarded SABA grant will provide funding for studies to advance understanding of the effects of conditioned aversive stimuli (CAS) on behavior in adults with ID who have experienced trauma. People with ID face increased risks of exposure to adverse events (e.g. abuse, neglect, etc.). Although progress has been made in the treatment of stress-related disorders in the general population, treatment of these disorders in people with ID remains under-researched. For example, effective treatments for behavior change following exposure to trauma in the general population rely heavily on therapies that require complex communication repertoires. Additionally, exposure to adverse events often leads to increases in problem behavior and decreases in independence in activities of daily living for people with ID. Consequently, many people with ID and traumatic histories may be receiving treatment from behavior analysts or psychiatrists with little to no direct assessment of the effects of past trauma or CAS (many of which are unavoidable) on their behavior. The goals of this project are threefold. First, we will describe the effects of the presence of CAS during preference assessments on 1) choice latency, 2) selection order, 3) heartrate, 4) skin conductance, and 5) cortisol levels. Second, we will describe the effects of the presence of CAS on 1) problem behavior, 2) heartrate, 3) skin conductance, and 4) cortisol levels during a functional analysis. Finally, we will describe the effects of a treatment package including teaching an active escape response to temporarily terminate or reduce exposure to a CAS and behavioral relaxation training on behavioral and physiological measures and the re-acquisition of skills lost after a traumatic event.

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