Helping Adults with Disabilities Learn New Skills

Categories: ASD and DD, Adult-focused

Most adults with developmental disabilities enjoy learning. Developing new skills or improving existing skills helps them feel important, intelligent, and more independent. In addition, the social interaction they have with an instructor can provide valuable positive reinforcement, and the rewards they receive for responding correctly can be stimulating and motivating.

Adults with developmental disabilities can learn a variety of life-enhancing skills. They can learn to complete household tasks, make financial transactions, tend to their personal hygiene, and facilitate appropriate interactions with others. Loading a dishwasher, cashing a check, shaving, or making a telephone call to a friend are just a few examples of skills an adult learner may be able to acquire.

There are a number of factors to consider when working with adults with developmental disabilities, including their age, mental capacity, physical capabilities, preferences, and the kinds of skills that are most appropriate for their individual circumstances. Taking these factors into account, the teacher can design a skill training program that will not only benefit the individual, but that he or she is ready, willing, and able to begin.

Teaching new skills to individuals with developmental disabilities takes time, patience, and persistence. It begins with the development of a structured teaching strategy. Similar to a school curriculum, a teaching strategy describes the overall goal of the instruction and also identifies smaller, more easily attainable objectives the individual can reach on the way to mastering the overall goal. It also provides an outline for staff members to follow that will enable them to properly implement the teaching procedure.

Teaching strategies describe the behaviors expected of the adult learner, the score or level of performance he or she is expected to achieve, the instructions and assistance (prompting) staff will provide to encourage correct responding, and the materials needed to implement the teaching procedure. Staff should always incorporate positive reinforcement into teaching strategies and, whenever possible, use preferred items chosen by the individual – such as activities or snacks – as reinforcers.

Once the teaching strategy is developed and implemented, service providers should review it on a regular basis to ensure that the individual is receiving the most effective support. Teachers should evaluate progress regularly and modify the plan whenever necessary in order to optimize learning.

As is the case for all of us, an individual with developmental disabilities may experience some diminishment in mental capacity as he or she ages. Medical conditions such as stroke, dementia, and Alzheimer’s may develop and impede learning. It may be necessary to customize a teaching strategy based on the diminished cognitive or physical capabilities of the individual.

Keep in mind that as circumstances change, an adult learner may be able to complete a certain task, but not exactly the way it is outlined in his or her strategy. In that case, the strategy may need to be modified. Sometimes, it matters more that the task was completed than how it was completed.

Teaching strategies should always focus on an individual’s existing interests and abilities, and should be designed around his or her personal choices. It is important to remember that each person has the right to choose and refuse treatment, and that his or her personal preferences may change over time. Teaching an adult with developmental disabilities can be extremely rewarding. Enhancing an adult’s skill level provides him or her with dignity and the personal fulfillment that will result in a happier and more independent life.

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, serving individuals with autism spectrum disorder 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. For more information, call 800.778.7601  or visit