I think; therefore I am “I think; therefore I am”: Cognitive Distortions and Loneliness in Adolescents with Neurodevelopmental Disorders.

Project Team

Principle Investigator: Prof Stephen Houghton (stephen.houghton@uwa.edu.au)

GCU Co-investigators: Prof Simon Hunter.

External Co-investigators: Prof Andrew Page, Dr David Lawrence, Prof Pamela Qualter.

Researcher: Corinne Zadow

Funder: Australian Research Council

Dates: Ongoing


Defined as a distressing emotional state people experience when they notice a discrepancy between the desired and perceived quality or quantity of their social relations (Lasgaard et al., 2016; Maes et al., 2016), loneliness is strongly linked with a constellation of mental health problems and emotional dysfunction (e.g., depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation: see Smith & Victor, 2019). It is as strong a risk factor for broad based morbidity as smoking, obesity, and high blood pressure, is associated with a 26% increase in premature mortality (Cacioppo & Cacioppo, 2018) and is predicted to reach epidemic proportions by 2030 (Holt-Lunstad et al., 2015). Adolescence is the peak period for loneliness with up to 80% of individuals reporting such feelings. Of these, 15-30% describe their loneliness as persistent and painful (van Dulmen & Goossens, 2013). Adolescent loneliness and its adverse outcomes remains an “overlooked problem” (Deckers et al., 2017). This is particularly the case for adolescents with Neurodevelopmental Disorders (e.g., Specific Learning Disorders, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Intellectual Developmental Disorders, Communication Disorders, Autism Spectrum Disorder) placed in mainstream secondary schools despite evidence that they are at significantly increased risk of developing negative thought patterns and cognitive distortions. These systematic misinterpretations of ambiguous information (Grafton & MacLeod, 2014) are arguably the hallmarks of, and causal in, the development of difficulties such as loneliness. Programs that alleviate or help youth to manage those everyday experiences, alter negative thought patterns, and thus avert cognitive distortions are therefore critical.

Aims and Objectives

To extend our existing gamified intervention to adolescents with Neurodevelopmental Disorders in mainstream schools. This will generate new knowledge that enriches theoretical understanding and creates the exciting potential to improve the life quality of a vulnerable group who constitute up to 20% of all young people (King-Dowling et al., 2019).

The specific objectives are to:

  • Identify the specific situations and scenarios in which adolescents with Neurodevelopmental Disorders experience peer friendship difficulties and loneliness in their everyday interactions.
  • Determine whether peer friendship difficulties and loneliness in specific situations and scenarios vary according to presence of a Neurodevelopmental Disorder, sex, and rural/metropolitan location.
  • Gauge how adolescents with Neurodevelopmental Disorders interpret ambiguity within their peer interactions.
  • Modify, extend and evaluate our existing 3-D animated approach to make it appropriate for adolescents with Neurodevelopmental Disorders.

Study Design

A multi-methods approach will be utilised over the proposed three-year project. This will include group and individual interviews with multiple stakeholders, and a cluster-randomised controlled evaluation. These methods build directly on our previously funded research with adolescents with and without Neurodevelopmental Disorders.