Finding the Balance Between Providing Support and Promoting Independence for Individuals with Intellectual Disabilities

Categories: ASD and DD, Adult-focused

By Margaret Walsh, M.A., BCBA

Teaching people living with intellectual disabilities (ID) the skills they need to lead productive and meaningful lives is vital to their well-being. But time and again, those of us working or living with someone with ID find we must maintain a delicate balance between providing supervision that is appropriate for that person’s abilities while, at the same time, promoting their independence.
When teaching a person with ID how to be more independent, make sure you have a clear understanding of his or her abilities and interests. By closely observing and talking with the individual and/or the caregivers, it is likely you can find out what he or she wants to do and what skills they may need to learn.
For example, if the person wants to stay home alone, but cannot use a telephone, you would need to determine if this individual has the skills required to learn how to use the phone before working on staying home alone. It is a good idea to explain to the individual why he or she would need to learn a particular skill – such as using the telephone – and how it will benefit them.
Once you begin teaching a new skill, it is helpful to break it down into smaller steps and provide as much assistance as needed to ensure the person is able to respond correctly every step of the way. Over time, he or she should be able to engage in the skill with less assistance from another person.
Teaching a person with ID to engage in activities that are important to them with the least amount of assistance sets the stage for self-determination and independence. If he or she is having problems mastering a skill, you may want to consult with a behavior analyst to try to figure out how to best solve the problem.
As most of us have discovered during our lives, learning how to manage time is a necessary skill for achieving independence. One of the best ways to teach anyone to manage their time is to teach them to use a schedule. Some people living with ID can use calendars, planner books, or smart phones to remind them of their commitments. Others may need assistance from a caregiver to set up a basic schedule with pictures that will show them what to expect throughout their day. Whatever the individual’s skill level, a schedule is a valuable tool they can use when learning to manage day-to-day behavior.
It is important to stress that people with ID do not need a schedule because they have a disability; they need a schedule because they are human. All of us forget things and get disorganized. To keep this from happening, we can all benefit from some kind of schedule that helps us remember to go to work and take the trash out on Sunday night.
Another way to encourage people with ID to live more independent lives is to make sure they know what resources are available to them and how to ask for help when it is needed. Physical limitations, speech and language deficits, and behavior and mental health problems can sometimes prevent people living with ID from getting the support they need from their communities, families, and service providers. Some people with ID can advocate for themselves very well; however, this isn’t always the case.
Caregivers and family members must work continuously to teach the person with ID the skills necessary to recognize and express when they may need support. For some people, that may mean learning to call the doctor or the dentist to make an appointment on their own, or knowing where the emergency numbers are and when to call them if needed. For others with more severe ID, it may be learning to use basic sign language, augmentative communication devices, or pictures to indicate their needs and desires. It is key to for everyone, including people with ID, to know what to do when they need help. For all of us, asking for help should never be seen as a weakness, but a necessary and beautiful part of life.
As people who care for and about individuals with ID, it is our responsibility to help them learn to lead their lives with the least amount of assistance necessary to ensure their safety and well-being. With the right amount of support, these men and women can lead independent, productive, and meaningful lives.

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

May Institute is a nonprofit organization that is a national leader in the field of applied behavior analysis, serving individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other developmental disabilities, brain injury and neurobehavioral disorders, and other special needs. Founded more than 65 years ago, we provide a wide range of exceptional educational and rehabilitative services across the lifespan. May Institute operates five schools for children and adolescents with ASD and other developmental disabilities, including one in West Springfield, and our newest school in Chicopee, Mass. For more information, call 800.778.7601  or visit

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