Aging Adults with Special Needs Benefit From Applied Behavior Analysis

Categories: ASD and DD, Adult-focused

By Margaret Walsh, M.A., BCBA

Older adults with intellectual disabilities (ID) and autism spectrum disorder (ASD) face many of the same challenges as the general geriatric population. However, the health challenges they experience are more complex and more acute that those of typical aging adults.

Despite higher incidences of health problems, adults with special needs are living longer lives. In fact, life expectancy for individuals with ASD is only slightly lower than the general population. The same is true for people with mild ID. As more and more of these individuals become senior citizens, the need for high quality services continues to increase.

The good news is that behavior analysts, human services professionals with extensive training in applied behavior analysis (ABA), can help aging adults with ID and ASD live better lives. ABA is a methodology that applies scientific interventions to address behavioral needs.

Aging adults with special needs frequently experience issues with anxiety, depression, dementia, arthritis, and osteoporosis. These medical conditions and other challenges that impact seniors will often impair a person’s ability to engage in daily activities and reduce his or her quality of life.

For example, an individual who was once able to shower independently may become fearful of the shower because he or she fell and broke their arm while showering. Using ABA techniques, a behavior analyst can help that person develop or even redevelop skills he or she needs to maintain an optimum level of independence.

The first thing a behavior analyst will do when beginning to work with an older individual experiencing challenges is to make sure there are no underlying medical issues that could be causing a certain problematic behavior to occur. This is important for the elderly population with ID because many medical needs go unrecognized or are mistaken for behavior problems.

For example, urinary tract infections (UTIs) can cause someone to urinate more often and become incontinent. For older adults with special needs who are not typically incontinent, this is usually a sign that they have a UTI. Often, when a UTI is treated, the incontinence significantly decreases or goes away entirely. In cases like this, there would be no need for a behavior analyst to develop a treatment plan for the individual, because the underlying issue was medical, not behavioral. It takes strong advocacy to help care providers recognize the difference between a medical and behavioral issue. Being able to recognize this difference can dramatically improve someone’s life.

A behavior analyst will look at the context in which a challenging behavior is occurring and work with the individual and the caregiver to develop routines that may make it more likely that adaptive, or appropriate, behavior will occur. Before the behavior analyst can suggest any kind of treatment, he or she will conduct a functional behavior assessment (FBA). An FBA is used to determine the purpose of someone’s challenging behavior. The resulting report comprehensively describes the events that trigger the behavior and identifies what would motivate the person to engage in more adaptive behavior. All of this information will help the behavior analyst develop an individualized treatment plan to address the unique needs of an elderly adult with ID.

A skilled behavior analyst is able to develop a treatment plan that can be easily understood by everyone providing care to an individual with special needs. As part of the plan, data would be collected on the person’s challenging and adaptive behaviors. This allows the individual and caregivers to see their progress and make informed decisions.

Behavior analysts can provide valuable support to aging adults with ID and ASD, their caregivers, and their medical care team. All of us will need this kind of individualized support at some point in our lives – care providers who can identify our needs, listen to our fears, and support our goals. This kind of committed teamwork can help typical adults and those with special needs embrace their “golden years” with confidence and enthusiasm.

Margaret Walsh, M.A., BCBA, is the Clinical Director for the May Center for Adult Services in Western Massachusetts. She may be contacted in West Springfield at 413-734-0300 (ext. 262) or at

About May Institute
May Institute is a nonprofit organization that is a national leader in the field of applied behavior analysis and evidence-based interventions, serving autistic individuals and individuals with other developmental disabilities, brain injury, neurobehavioral disorders, and other special needs. Founded nearly 70 years ago, we provide a wide range of exceptional educational and rehabilitative services across the lifespan. The May Center for Adult Services in West Springfield provides day and residential services to adults with developmental disabilities living in western Massachusetts. For more information, call 800.778.7601 or visit