Strategies For Working With Adults With Developmental Disabilities

As more and more people with developmental disabilities live into their adult years, it is more important than ever that we understand the difficulties they regularly face. Depending on the disability, some tasks can become more of a struggle than it may seem at first. Identifying these challenges will allow these individuals to live a fuller and more productive life. They stand more of a chance of becoming independent and confident when one accounts for their needs as a precautionary step, rather than after it becomes an issue. Learning and developing strategies for working with adults with developmental disabilities will ensure that you make a positive difference in their lives.

What is a Developmental Disability?

According to the CDC, developmental disabilities are a group of conditions due to a limitation in physical, learning, language, or behavior areas. In the United States, one out of every six children has one or more developmental disabilities or delays. These disabilities usually last for the rest of the person's life.

Common developmental disabilities listed by the CDC include:

  • ADHD
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder
  • Cerebral Palsy
  • Hearing Loss
  • Intellectual Disability
  • Learning Disability
  • Vision Impairment
  • Other Developmental Delays

What Effects Does Having a Developmental Disability Have on Everyday Life?

It’s important to understand how having a developmental disability will affect how that individual learns and interacts daily with others. Those with developmental disabilities often need special care. One of their main roadblocks is that they often engage in behavior that the unfamiliar might consider difficult or challenging. Working with adults with developmental disabilities can, however, be rewarding for both parties if they have the right knowledge and strategies.

Strategies for Working with Adults with Developmental Disabilities

1. Using Strengths as Strategies for Working with Adults with Developmental Disabilities

As with any other population, the encouragement of individuals with developmental disabilities can build confidence. It's easy to feel different or easily judged. With this in mind, it's important to focus on and lean into what adults with developmental disabilities can do successfully when working with them. Help them grow their strengths meaningfully, and feel valued and whole.

The Trauma of Social Stigma

One of the biggest challenges you will face in this area is if the person already deeply absorbs the damaging words and actions of others who do not have the right information. The “otherness” placed on them creates feelings of social isolation, and, because of this, exhausting gaps in social interaction. By leaning into their strengths, you can move them into strength-focused social interactions that build their confidence and help close the gap.


Antony loves to draw portraits of animals, and he’s talented. Unfortunately, he has difficulty with verbal communication. Evan, who works with Antony, suggests Antony draws a portrait of his new neighbor’s cat as a gift to welcome them to the neighborhood.

In an ideal scenario, the new neighbor would maintain contact with Antony by leaving a friendly "thank you" note. Regardless of future contact, Antony has developed a new method of communicating with others that involves his strength.

2. Using Visibility as Strategies for Working with Adults with Developmental Disabilities

Individuals with developmental disabilities deal with others staring at them daily. Whether ill-intended or not, that feeling of “otherness” is further strengthening the feeling of loneliness. It's natural for us to judge our surroundings by looking at them and making judgments based on how they appear. Unfortunately, many important factors and details that are even more important than appearances are overlooked by this process.

Embrace the Differences

Developmental disabilities can be the cause of several physical and behavioral issues for those it affects. These issues are often viewed as unusual, so being stared at can negatively affect that individual’s self-confidence. The dwindling self-confidence, paired with their inability to change the things others, who are uninformed, see as “wrong,” is nothing short of demoralizing. However, looking away and refusing to look at them can be just as harmful, so what is the best thing to do? Well, what do we usually do when we want someone to feel seen and welcomed without saying anything? We give them a friendly smile. Smiling lets them know you are noticing them and that they're welcome.


Maria has Down Syndrome and has started a new volunteer position at her local animal shelter. On her first day, she notices that two of the other volunteers are avoiding her, but she doesn’t understand why. She decides to call her dad to pick her up. On her way out, she meets the other new volunteer, who smiles at her, then introduces herself as Nayla.

Maria should become more at ease and confident in her new surroundings due to Nayla's greeting. Maria, on the other hand, would have had a positive interaction, even if she had left the animal shelter and returned home.

Try to spend as much time as possible interacting with people with developmental disabilities when you first start. Smiling may be helpful most of the time, but people with autism may not understand nonverbal cues or make direct eye contact. The more interaction you have with them, the better you can see who they truly are. Always be patient and kind to others.

3. Inclusion as Strategies for Working with Adults with Developmental Disabilities

Strategies for working with adults with developmental disabilities often focus on inclusion. However, it’s important to distinguish between inclusion and integration.

Needs are Not Negative

The world inclusion is primarily designed for people who aren’t affected by developmental issues. Inclusion is the act of providing accommodations that give those with developmental disabilities the ability to engage in an environment not originally created for them. Without these arrangements, these individuals are pushed into an environment in which they can’t perform or thrive. The key difference between inclusion and integration is the lack of accommodation. With this in mind, consider why simple integration isn't helpful or fair for people with developmental disabilities.


Ashlyn is a new student at her local community college. She originally applied because the college boasted of inclusion for those with disabilities, and it had an amazing art program. She and her family decided to live on campus in a dorm that was supposed to be wheelchair accessible. However, Ashlyn quickly learned that the building housing 200 students with four floors only had one elevator. Her dorm room had loft beds, and there was one ramp to the entrance door of the building – every other entrance had steps.

Let's look at how integration is instead of inclusion in this case. Because Ashlyn relies on her wheelchair to get around, she needs special accommodations to be fully integrated into her campus environment. The college's modifications are not enough to overcome the hurdles posed by a campus that was not designed with her in mind.

True Inclusion

True inclusion moves beyond simply integrating those with developmental disabilities into the world. It’s looking at the world and changing what needs to be changed to make it more accessible to others. While it is difficult to anticipate the needs of every person, communication and willingness to move forward are key to beginning this change in the right direction.

If you, or anyone you know, have questions or would like more information about working with adults with developmental disabilities, contact Integrity Inc.

strategies for working with adults with developmental disabilities

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