Helping Individuals with Special Needs Make Good Choices

Categories: ASD and DD, Adult-focused

When we make choices, we decide what will happen in our lives. Where we live, what we do for work, and the friends we keep are extremely important choices we make during our lifetime. They ensure we can live the way we want to live.

We also have daily opportunities to make choices that affect our health, well-being, relationships, diet, leisure activities, education, and more. Making choices is such a common activity for most of us that we probably take this privilege for granted.

For many individuals with special needs, opportunities to make choices are limited. Their important life decisions are often made by providers, family members, and staff who may underestimate their ability to make appropriate choices for themselves.

As a clinician who works with adults with developmental disabilities, I understand the importance of facilitating choice-making. I also understand that some individuals with special needs are unable to make appropriate choices. Many lack the communication skills necessary to express a desire or a wish. Others lack the reasoning skills necessary to make decisions that affect their health and safety. Some lack the awareness to make age- or gender-appropriate decisions. In cases like these, it is up to us as providers, supporters, and advocates not to make decisions for these individuals, but to help them make appropriate choices for themselves. This can be done in a number of ways. 

“Forced choices” are a great way to encourage appropriate choice-making. Instead of asking open-ended questions such as, “What do you want to drink?” you can ask, “Do you want milk or juice?” This “forces” the person to make a choice between the two items. For a person who cannot speak, placing pictures of the items, or holding the actual objects in front of him or her, can help facilitate choice-making.

Modeling is another way to encourage someone to make an appropriate choice. Modeling involves engaging in the behavior you want another person to imitate. If you model appropriate choice-making such as eating healthy foods, using appropriate language in your interactions with others, and wearing appropriate clothing, then the individual in your care may imitate your behavior.

Sometimes, a person with developmental disabilities makes a choice that could pose a risk to his or her safety. When this happens, it is our responsibility as supporters to protect that person from harm. In cases like these, it is important to help the individual understand the consequences associated with making poor choices. Discussing possible negative outcomes and presenting safe alternatives can help him or her make an appropriate choice.

By creating opportunities for individuals with special needs to make choices, we can help them feel valued, respected, trusted, and empowered. This can ultimately lead to greater independence and can make their lives happier and more meaningful.

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