Is it Functional? Teaching and Encouraging Functional Skills for Adults with Disabilities

Categories: ASD and DD, Adult-focused

By Alexandra Campanaro, Ph.D., LABA, BCBA-D                                   

[This column was published in the West Springfield Republican on May 18, 2022.]

Just like their neurotypical peers, adults with disabilities have a long history of doing things a certain way. They have their likes and dislikes, a history of interacting with others (which may be good or bad), and routines that make up their day such as brushing their teeth in the morning.

When working with this population, our goal is to give them the tools they need to live meaningful lives and engage in activities that have a purpose. Which leads us to the question: “Is it functional?” In other words, do the skills we teach and encourage add to their lives in meaningful ways?
Teaching and encouraging functional skills will increase the quality of life and independence of the individuals in our care. The functional skills we prioritize are communication skills (expressing wants and needs), following basic directions, and completing essential daily living skills (such as washing hands). Below are a few recommendations for readers who are interested in teaching functional skills to adults with disabilities.

Get to Know the Individual
Before attempting to teach any functional skills to someone, take time and get to know the person. Observe their likes and dislikes, any topics they enjoy talking about, and determine if they like any physical interactions such as high-fives. Once you have identified some preferred items or activities, you can use them as incentives while teaching functional skills. For example, you could play music during a cooking or a kitchen clean-up task. Think of the ways you make everyday tasks more enjoyable for yourself and explore these ways while you provide assistance and supervision to the individual in your care. 

Talk and Listen
Those of us who teach functional skills to others should consistently be talking to them. We can describe and narrate what they are doing or what we are doing and provide a lot of praise when they are engaged in appropriate behaviors such as sitting and making a flower arrangement. (For example, “That flower arrangement looks very pretty. I like the red flowers you added, Mary.”) On the other hand, we also need to listen to our individuals. When they are speaking, we should show a genuine interest in what they are saying and take the time to ask follow-up questions.

Although our goal is to increase the quality of life and independence of the individuals we serve, we never want to insist they do anything. Instead, when teaching functional skills, we want to offer encouragement. To do so, we may provide items they enjoy after they try their best with learning a new functional skill. Or, if things are not going well, we may take a break from teaching the skill until the person is more receptive to undertaking the task at hand.

It is likely that using these strategies will result in meaningful engagement to support quality of life for individuals with disabilities. If you have questions about what activities are meaningful and functional, contact the adult learner’s care plan team and ask for their input. You may also make some suggestions to the team based on what you learned here. Do not be scared to try new activities that support community inclusion! 
Alexandra Campanaro, Ph.D., LABA, BCBA-D, is a postdoctoral fellow and interim Clinical Director at May Institute who has conducted research on computer-based approaches to competently train caregivers of adults with disabilities. She also provides clinical training at May programs in Western Massachusetts. She can be contacted 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 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