What are Adaptive or Self-Help Developmental Delays

What are Adaptive Developmental Delays?

Adaptive developmental delays refer to conditions in which children have not reached age-appropriate life skills. It is important that children learn adaptive and self-help skills so they can live independent and productive lives as adolescents and adults.

Behavioral pediatricians typically divide adaptive development into the following categories:

  • Self-help skills that involve the “activities of daily living” (ADL) such as getting dressed, going to the bathroom, cleaning teeth, and self-feeding
  • Communication skills such as speech and language (including expressive and receptive abilities)
  • Motor coordination skills which include gross motor skills (like jumping and hopping) and fine motor skills (like drawing or stacking objects)
  • Social interaction skills such as initiating peer contact, group activities, knowing the rules of manners and conversation, using the telephone
  • Self-sufficiency skills such as being safe, asking for help, and personal responsibility (e.g. counting and using money)
  • Cognition skills like higher-order reasoning, problem-solving, and executive decisions
  • Organization skills needed to follow daily routines and understand timing and completion. This category also includes recognizing sequences and patterns. Organization skills are essential to the successful completion of homework, assignments, and future success in the workplace.

Why are Adaptive and Self-Help Skills Important?

Adaptive skills are essential to independent living. Without age-appropriate adaptive development, children may have difficulty participating fully in school or even attending birthday parties and sleepovers. Self-help skills are often building blocks of the refined physical control needed to complete everyday tasks (such as opening lunch boxes or standing to pull up jeans). Adaptive and self-help skills form the foundation of childhood social, interactive, and life activities.

What are the Adaptive Developmental Milestones?

Although you should allow enough time and practice for children to learn adaptive behaviors, important general milestones to keep in mind include the following:

By Age 1:

  • Child can self-feed a cracker
  • Holds cup between two hands and can drink with assistance
  • Holds out arms and legs while being dressed

Between Age 1 and 2:

  • Uses spoon without excessive shaking or spilling
  • Uses cup unassisted and with one hand
  • Chews food before swallowing
  • Indicates toilet needs / potty training
  • Can remove shoes, socks, pants, jacket or sweater
  • May unzip large safety zipper

Between Ages 2 and 3:

  • Uses spoon with very little spilling
  • Can get drinks from a fountain or faucet independently
  • Practices opening door by turning handle
  • Puts on or removes coat with assistance
  • Washes and dries hands with assistance

Between Ages 3 and 4:

  • Learns to pour liquid from a small pitcher
  • Can spread soft butter using a butter-knife
  • Can button or unbutton large or medium-sized buttons
  • Uses toilet and washes hands independently
  • Can use a tissue or blow nose when reminded

Between Ages 4 and 5:

  • Can cut easy foods with a knife or fork
  • Learns to lace shoes

Between Ages 5 and 6:

  • Begins to dress oneself completely
  • Brushes teeth independently
  • Learns to cross street safely

What Causes Adaptive Developmental Delays?

Some children simply require more practice and learn on their own schedule later than others. However, an adaptive delay can also be the result of several causes:

  • Premature birth that results in muscles developing more slowly
  • Genetic causes (such as Down syndrome)
  • Nerve and muscle disorders (such as muscular dystrophy or cerebral palsy)
  • Developmental diagnoses such as autism
  • Pre-existing cognitive delays
  • Pre-existing gross motor or fine motor challenges

How are Adaptive Developmental Delays Treated?

Professionals mostly treat adaptive developmental delays through behavioral therapy, physical therapy, and pediatric occupational therapy. Occupational therapists assess a child’s ability and use of self-help and play activities to teach the life skills (known as “occupations”) needed for independent living.  Treatment may also include sensory practice to help children learn to adapt to various environments. For more information, contact The Warren Center for information about adaptive development therapy.

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