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Adaptive Skills

by Michelle Reed-Harris


Skills for Everyday Life

Adaptive skills are essential for a child to master in order to be a successful adult.

These skills are defined as skills needed to function and meet the demands of one’s environment. This including the skills necessary to take care of oneself. In addition, he person also needs to interact with other people.

Adaptive skills are essential to be an independent adult. Children with poor executive functioning issues, ADHD, autism, intellectual delay, and other issues often need direct instruction in adaptive skills.

What Are Adaptive Skills?

These ten skill-areas include:

  • Self-Care – bathing, dressing, grooming, and feeding one’s self;
  • Communication Skills – understanding and using verbal and nonverbal language;
  • Self-Direction – problem-solving, exercising choice, initiating and planning activities;
  • Social Skills – maintaining interpersonal relationships, understanding emotions and social cues, understanding fairness and honesty, obeying rules and laws;
  • Leisure Skills – taking responsibility for one’s own activities, having the ability to participate in the community;
  • Home or School Living – housekeeping, cooking, doing laundry, maintaining living space;
  • Functional Academics – using reading, writing, and math skills in everyday life;
  • Community Use – shopping, using public transportation, using community services;
  • Work – ability to maintain part-time or full-time employment, either competitive or sheltered, ability to work under supervision, cooperate with coworkers, be reliable and punctual, and meet work standards, and;
  • Health and Safety – ability to protect one’s self, responding to health problems.

Why Are Adaptive Sills So Important?

Adaptive behavior refers to a person’s social responsibility and independent performance of daily activities. A lack of adaptive skills could be seen in my children.

When they were five years old, they could not do many basic things for themselves.  They could’nt bathe, brush their hair, brush their teeth, put on their clothes and shoes without assistance. They were not aware of safety including giving out too much information to random strangers. And they often ran in front of moving vehicles.

They could not eat without making a huge mess. They were behind in pretty much every skill. My children still relied on me for the most basic of needs.

Adaptive Skills in Special Education

When a child is in special education in public school, the school should address these issues within the educational therapy model. This is especially true if they have low adaptive skills

Examples of adaptive skills that are part of the educational setting include:


  • Self-Care – Appropriate personal hygiene, Ability to maintain adequate self-care;
  • Communication Skills – Useful more of communication with others, Ability to verbally communicate, Ability to use written communication, Appropriate listening comprehension, Adequate receptive communication including adequate vocabulary knowledge;
  • Self-Direction – Able to work as independently as peers in the educational setting, Able to self-correct inappropriate behavior, Ability to plan and organize tasks/activities at the same level as peers;
  • Social Skills – Appropriate interaction with peers, Appropriate interaction with adults, Ability to understand social interaction;
  • Leisure Skills – Able to spend free time or play time independently, Ability to follow rules, take turns, and interact appropriately with other peers;
  • Home or School Living – Able to complete daily tasks or chores;
  • Functional Academics – Able to have functional reading skills (less than 2 grade levels behind); Able to have functional math skills (less than 2 grade levels behind); Ability to have functional writing skills (less than 2 grade levels behind);
  • Community Use – Able to move about in the school/community setting with little to no supervision, Appears to understand school/community rules and can follow the rules with minimal rule violations;
  • Health and Safety – Ability to avoid dangerous situations, Understands personal health and safety issues, Lack of ability to advocate for oneself when injured or ill.

Adaptive Skills in Intellectual Delay

Intellectual disability (ID) originates before the age of eighteen (18).

People with this disability experience significant limitations in two main areas:

1) intellectual functioning and

2) adaptive behavior.

The person’s conceptual, social, and practical everyday living skills expresse these limitations.

A number of people with ID are mildly affected, making the disability difficult to recognize without visual cues.

ID is diagnosed through the use of standardized tests of intelligence and adaptive behavior.

Individuals with ID who are provided appropriate personalized supports over a sustained period generally have improved life outcomes.

In fact, many adults with an ID can live independent, productive lives in the community with support from family, friends and local agencies.

When we speak about ID, a child tends to have an intelligence score of 69 or less which falls into the range of Impaired.

There are a few reasons a child could have a low score and MANY people with mild ID CAN lead independent lives.

Can a Child have a Lower IQ and not have an Intellectual Disability?

A child CAN have a lower IQ but still not have a ID. I explain processing speed in my other post. If you have a child with a highly impaired processing speed, but a fairly intact working memory, it is possible that your child may not be truly intellectually delayed.

So what do I mean? Joseph has a lower IQ at 68. When I approached the school to enroll my son they used previous neuropsychological testing I had completed on him.

The neuropsychologist though did not do the complete battery of the WISC V, so the school wanted to do the rest of the subtests. I said that was fine.

Joseph wins silver at ATA National tournament.

When the tester came to conduct the testing, I asked him if he would please give Joseph unlimited time to try a couple of the harder problems and see if he has his higher cognitive functioning intact.

A person with a true intellectual disability has a cap on their learning due to limited higher cognitive thinking. I wanted to know if that was truly the case for Joseph or if it was only his SUPER impaired processing speed was holding back his overall IQ.

Joseph was tested and when the evaluator came out he told me in a chuckle,

“You are right. He was able to solve those two problems, but he was WAY outside the time limit! I agree with you, he does not have a true intellectual delay but a severe delay in processing speed.”

Homeschooling Can Help

That was all I needed to argue back with the school. In my case, my son was determined to be multiply disabled due to the variety of disability issues he has in school.

It is also the reason now I homeschool him and his siblings.

Joseph with his brother and sister. They are surviving quadruplets

Back to my main point, a child with mild intellectual delay CAN often live pretty independently with a little help.

Some of the recent peer-reviewed journal articles point to the use of technology as a way for young adults to learn the daily living skills needed.

Since I homeschool, I have the flexibility to focus working more on daily living skills allowing my children more time to practice and perfect the daily living skills they need as an adult; adult interaction, communication, and socialization.

We also learn self-advocacy, cooking, cleaning, organization, scheduling, shopping. We also learn budgeting, and transportation (riding the bus, bus schedule, and planning a ride).

For more Information

.If you’d like to learn more about adaptive skills, join us for more discussion at our FB group, IEP/504 Assistance for parents of public school students from all over the United States.

PASEN also runs a Homeschooling Special (Needs) Kids group,

We run a group for all parents and caregivers of special needs children called Special Needs Parenting Advice and Support. We discuss ALL things related to special needs care. In addition, we have a group for Gifted and Twice Exceptional Children.

If you need a special education advocate, you can find out more on our Advocacy page.

Parent Advocacy Training Module-1-3 Cover Image


This comprehensive training is for parents who are stuck in the IEP process. The information you learn in this course will help you effectively advocate for your child. 

In this section, students will learn basic research, special education jargon, and important information about general topics concerning IEPs and Special Education law

Parent Alliance for Students with Exceptional Students (PASEN) is meant purely for educational or medical discussion. It contains information about legal or medical matters; however, it is not professional legal or medical advice and should not be treated as such.

Limitation of warranties: The legal and medical information on this website is provided “as is” without any representations or warranties, express or implied. PASEN makes no representations or warranties in relation to the legal or medical information on the website.

Professional assistance: You must not rely on the information on this website as an alternative to legal or medical advice from your attorney or medical provider. If you have any specific questions about any legal or medical matter, you should consult your attorney or medical service provider.