The SPARC Project (Supporting Parent-Adolescent Relationships and Communication)

Families of Youth with a Developmental Disability: A Theory Based Intervention

The Notre Dame SPARC Project is a program designed to support communication and strengthen relationships in families that include a child with an intellectual or developmental disability (IDD). In particular, the SPARC project is geared toward supporting parents and typically developing adolescent siblings of individuals with IDD by promoting effective communication and conflict resolution between couples and also between parents and their typically developing children. The goal of the study is to evaluate how best to support parents and typically developing siblings of individuals with IDD by improving communication and strengthening family relationships.

Research Overview

The SPARC project is designed to test the efficacy for parents, typically developing (TD) siblings, and children with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) of a psycho-educational and communication training approach to improving family communication and to examine the mechanisms associated with change processes that occur as a result of the 4-week program. Our goal is to increase the availability and affordability of empirically-supported family-systems approaches to reduce stress and conflict in families of individuals with IDD. We expect that the program will support the identified needs of families with a child with IDD, improve the well-being and adjustment of parents, increase emotional security and adjustment for TD siblings, and be associated with improvements in adaptive functioning for individuals with IDD. This expectation is supported by promising qualitative evidence and preliminary analyses from a pilot study using this curriculum. We furthermore expect that by providing a family-systems approach to improving the family environment, the program will support the well-being of each family member, including the child with IDD. The specific aims are: (1) determining the efficacy of the program for parents, (2a) determining the efficacy of the program for typically developing siblings, (2b) testing process models, guided by the Emotional Security Theory (EST; Davies & Cummings, 1994), to explain how and why and for whom and when changes occur as a result of the program, and (3) examining the impact of the program on individuals with IDD. Families (n=150) that include a child with IDD and a TD sibling between 10 and 18 years of age, will be randomly assigned to one of two groups: (1) parent and typically developing sibling intervention, or (2) resource only control. Multi-method assessments of all family members will be obtained at pre- and post-intervention visits, and 6-month and 1-year follow-ups.

Funded By

National Institutes of Health

Age Group

  • Adolescents
  • Adults
  • Middle Childhood


  • E. Mark Cummings, Ph.D (PI)
  • Joshua J. Diehl, Ph.D. (PI)
  • Kathleen Bergman Miller, Ph.D. (Co-I)
  • Lijuan (Peggy) Wang, Ph.D. (Co-I)
  • John Borkowski, Ph.D. (Consultant)
  • Miranda Gao, Graduate Student
  • Abigail Mills, Graduate Student


Research Impact

The SPARC study addresses multiple family members’ needs, tests theory about explanatory models for program impact, and utilizes a brief, psycho-educational format and a RCT design to evaluate its efficacy. At its conclusion, this research will yield an inexpensive model program for family-system-level interventions for families of children with IDD, benefiting parents, siblings and the child with IDD, including evaluations of program efficacy and effectiveness in standing community centers.