Helping Adults with Intellectual Disabilities Develop Problem-solving Skills

Categories: ASD and DD, Adult-focused

By Margaret Walsh, M.A., BCBA

[The following column was published in the West Springfield Republican on 1/2/20]

Like most people, adults with intellectual disabilities (ID) make major life decisions such as who they would like to have as a romantic partner, what kinds of work they will do, who will provide daily assistance in their care, and what medical procedures they may need. For individuals with ID, being able to make informed and educated choices is key to ensuring their safety and quality of life.

For those of us who provide care for these individuals, teaching them about consent and self-advocacy is central to helping them make good choices. Adults with ID have a right to have a say in major life decisions, and their lives are diminished every time a decision is made for them without their input. Well-meaning guardians, family members, professionals, and care providers can disempower adults with ID if they do not work with them to make decisions that are appropriate and safe.

To effectively work with adults with ID, it is important to support their growth as individuals by helping them identify and understand the different options they have. This can be done by teaching problem-solving skills.

Problem solving requires the person to identify the problem, come up with different solutions to solve the problem, choose the best solution to the problem, and implement the chosen solution. Once the solution is implemented, it is important to spend some time talking with him or her about the effectiveness of the solution. If the solution was effective, the person should be able to identify why it worked. If the solution was ineffective, the person should be able to state why it didn’t work and what could have been done differently.

For some adults with ID, the problem-solving process may seem complicated at first. However, it can be modified to meet individual needs, and over time it should become easier. Problem solving teaches adults with ID that they can make meaningful decisions about their lives and they are responsible for their actions.

Adults with ID want to have meaningful relationships with others. Establishing new relationships can be exciting and fun. The beginning of a new relationship is a great time to review basic social skills. It can be helpful to role-play different scenarios they may encounter when they are interacting with new people. Some things to think about are how to greet someone, how to talk about yourself appropriately, how to talk to other people appropriately, what kinds of physical affection or touch is appropriate, how to give and receive contact information, and how to make plans to maintain the relationship. It is also important to go over what kinds of behavior they should not accept from another person. When an adult with ID feels confident about his or her relationships and social skills, he or she is less likely to be victimized and feel isolated from their community. Adults with ID can learn to be more self-confident and less dependent on others if the people they rely on to provide support teach them how to solve problems for themselves and help them nurture fulfilling relationships.

Adults with ID cannot spend their lives avoiding making decisions for themselves or developing new relationships with other people. The choices we make in life do not come without risk, and sometimes the best lessons in life come from learning from our mistakes. This is true for all of us. To make it through life we all need to have people in our lives who provide guidance and support when we need it. This is especially true for adults with ID.

Margaret Walsh, M.A., BCBA, is the Director of Clinical Services for the May Center for Adults Services in Western Massachusetts. She can 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. For more information, call 800.778.7601 or visit