What It Takes to Work with Individuals with Special Needs

Categories: Applied Behavior Analysis; ASD and DD, Adult-focused; Brain Injury

Over the years, I have encountered many people who are curious about what it’s like to work with adults with intellectual disabilities and other special needs. I can enthusiastically support this career choice, as it’s been my experience that working with this population can be challenging, rewarding, and fun.

Some people, however, shy away from working with individuals with special needs because they are afraid of having to deal with the aggressive, destructive, or self-injurious behaviors these individuals sometimes display. Unfortunately, individuals with special needs are often misunderstood and labeled according to their challenging behaviors.

The key to working in the field of intellectual disabilities is to understand that people should not be defined by their behaviors. It is also important to understand that all behaviors, challenging or otherwise, occur for a reason.

Some people with intellectual disabilities may experience challenges with their memories and their speech, and have difficulty making sense of the world around them. These impairments can make it hard for them to communicate effectively with others, which can lead to increased frustration and acting out. These individuals might engage in aggressive, destructive, or self-injurious behaviors as a way of communicating a want or a need. These types of behaviors may serve as a way for them to get things they want to have or do, escape tasks they don’t want to do, or avoid situations that make them uncomfortable.

For example, if a student engages in head-banging every time a teacher makes a request or gives an instruction, then we might assume that the function, or reason, for the behavior is to help the student escape the task. In this case, head-banging is meant to scare the teacher away so the student can get out of completing the task.

In determining the cause of a challenging behavior, it is crucial to analyze the events that come before and after that behavior. Once they identify these events, teachers and caretakers can develop a plan for preventing and addressing any future occurrences of the behavior. The plan should outline ways to teach the individual appropriate alternative behaviors that serve the same purpose as the challenging behavior. It should also identify the skills that are necessary to deal with events that seem to initiate and/or reinforce the behavior.

At May Institute, one of the methods we use to determine the reasons for certain behaviors is the Antecedent-Behavior-Consequence (A-B-C) data collection system. Using the A-B-C system, we identify the events that immediately precede a challenging behavior and the consequences that follow it. Summarizing and documenting these events can help us understand why a particular behavior occurs, and provides a record for future reference.

Understanding what happens before and after a behavior occurs can make that behavior more predictable, more manageable, and less intimidating. Then we can work to teach the individual alternative ways to get what he or she wants, thereby eliminating the need to resort to problematic behavior.

When we are able to spend less time managing challenging behaviors and more time teaching new skills, our jobs and the experiences of the children and adults in our care are much more satisfying and enjoyable.

By Teka J. Harris, M.A., BCBA

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 those with other developmental disabilities, brain injury and 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. For more information, call 800.778.7601 or visit