What Is Adaptive Behavior?

Adaptive behavior can be viewed as everyday competence. The term encompasses the basic, practical skills that are necessary to function and meet the demands of everyday life. 

Understanding Adaptive Behavior

Within the constructs of intelligence testing, the concepts of intelligence and adaptation have intertwined. However, intelligence focuses more specifically on mental abilities and capacity, while adaptive behavior focuses on skills as they are actually performed in response to everyday events and within the context of societal expectations.

People utilize adaptive skills every day to function effectively in typical activities. Adaptive behavior increases and grows in complexity as an individual ages, and the behavioral expectations in society change according to the age of the individual. For example, a two-year-old eating spaghetti with their fingers is more acceptable than a twelve-year-old. Adaptive behavior enables people to meet the expectations and demands faced in a variety of situations and environments.

Adaptive Behavior Domains and Skills

For individuals believed to have an adaptive behavior deficit, testing determines the deficient area and the appropriate intervention to implement. The American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (AAIDD) has identified three areas of adaptive behavioral skills:

  1. Conceptual skills, which are made up of self-direction, functional academics, and communication skills;
  2. Social skills, which consist of social responsibility, self-esteem, interpersonal skills, gullibility, naivete, rule-following, and avoidance of victimization;
  3. Practical skills, such as work skills and basic personal care skills, including hygiene, health, safety, and domestic skills.

Adaptive Behavior Deficits

There is consensus among all of the major diagnostic systems regarding the definition of intellectual disability, in that there must be evidence of functional deficits in both intellectual abilities and adaptive behavior. Individuals with disabilities may exhibit deficiencies in their adaptive behavior as a result of their condition, or sometimes because of other factors. Common characteristics of adaptive behavior deficits include:

  • Individuals having trouble with critical life activities, including maintaining relationships with peers, learning new skills, tending to personal needs, and functioning sufficiently at school, at home, and in the community
  • Individuals exhibiting deficits in some areas and strengths in others

A comprehensive adaptive skills assessment identifies areas of challenge and strength, and enables goal-setting for treatment programs and interventions.

Assessment of Adaptive Behavior

Standardized tests of adaptive behavior have greatly improved since the first scale published in 1936. Assessments currently focus on:

  • Typical behavior in an everyday environment rather than maximum performance in a test setting 
  • Adaptive behavior appropriate for the expectations of society for an individual of that specific age and cultural background
  • Analysis of the individual’s current adaptive behavior
  • Measuring a variety of information collected over time, from several informants in different areas of life (school, work, home, play)
  • Use of standardized scales for adaptive behavior based on norms for the general population
  • Use of clinical expertise throughout the process of assessment

While standardized tests are crucial in determining an individual’s adaptive behavior and intellectual functioning, the results of these tests must be clinically interpreted along with input from multiple sources. For more information about adaptive behavior, visit WPS.

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