Adaptive Functioning: Definition and Examples

Reviewed By Chris Drew (PhD)

Chris Drew (PhD)

adaptive functioning examples and definition, explained below

Adaptive functioning refers to a person’s ability to effectively manage daily living tasks and social interactions as compared to their age, cultural, and environmental expectations.

For example, suppose a child can dress appropriately for the weather and age-appropriately interact with peers. In that case, they are demonstrating adaptive functioning skills.

Similarly, an adult who can maintain employment successfully, have healthy relationships with others, and manage their finances effectively has mastered adaptive functioning skills.

Adaptive functioning is most commonly used to measure the capabilities og individuals living with developmental or intellectual disabilities as compared to the norms of their cohort. Similarly, it may be applied when examining the capacity for people with mental health conditions like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia to live and work independently.

Definition of Adaptive Functioning

The concept of adaptive functioning is used in psychology and psychiatry to describe the level of an individual’s independent functioning in daily life activities and socialization skills, as compared to their cohort norm. 

According to Alfieri and colleagues (2022), adaptive functioning is:

“…the collection of conceptual, social, and practical skills that are learned and performed by people in their everyday lives” (p. 1266).

In other words, it is the ability to adjust and change behavior in order to thrive in different environments. 

DSM-5 identifies three domains of adaptive functioning that can be measured and comapred:

  1. The conceptual domain: The conceptual domain refers to the individual’s cognitive skills, cognitive developmental level, aptitude for knowledge acquisition, logical and critical thinking skills, and communication skills. According to Ali and co-authors (2019), “The conceptual (academic) domain involves competence in memory, language, reading, writing, math reasoning, acquisition of practical knowledge, problem-solving, and judgment in novel situations, among others” (p. 52).
  2. The social domain: The social domain refers to a person’s interpersonal skills, including their ability to develop meaningful relationships and interact in social situations. Ali et al. note: “The social domain involves awareness of others’ thoughts, feelings, and experiences; empathy; interpersonal communication skills; friendship abilities; and social judgment, among others” (Ali et al., 2019, p.53).
  3. The practical domain: The practical domain relates to the capacity to complete everyday living activities independently, including maintaining personal hygiene, shopping, cooking, and cleaning. Ali et al (2019, p. 53) elaborate: “The practical domain involves learning and self-management across life settings, including personal care, job responsibilities, money management, recreation, self-management of behavior, and school and work task organization, among others.”

An individual with high levels of adaptive functioning may be presumed capable of self-managing their own life and living autonomously, while those with low levels may need to live in assisted living or require other social and community supports to maintain their independence.

Adaptive Functioning Examples

  • Self-care (practical domain): Self-care refers to the ability to take care of oneself, including basic activities like bathing, grooming, dressing appropriately for the weather, and managing personal hygiene. A five-year-old child with high adaptive functioning might be able to dress independently without help but still need help cutting their fingernails; while an adult with high adaptive functioning would be able to complete a wider range of self-care tasks alone.
  • Time management (practical domain): Time management refers to the ability to plan activities according to a timeline or schedule, including some organizational abilities such as determining the sequence in which activities should occur, and successfully anticipating how long they would take. For example, an adult with high adaptive functioning may be able to plan out long-term complex projects, while a child’s adaptive level might be expected to simply manage tasks in hourly slots. 
  • Communication skills (social domain): Communication skills is the ability to communicate effectively with others, including verbal and non-verbal social interaction skills. Some neurodivergent people may struggle to read non-verbal cues, which would give them a lower adaptive functioning score.
  • Financial management (practical domain): Handling one’s finances prudently – creating budgets, planning expenses, and paying bills on time, is a great example of adaptive functioning. For instance, an individual with mature financial management skills will be able to save up an emergency fund, while an adult with low adaptivity might need a custodian to manage their finances on their behalf.
  • Personal safety (practical domain): Taking appropriate steps towards upholding one’s own safety, including avoiding dangerous situations and performing risk management tasks effectively, is another prime example. Some particularly impulsive teenagers may, for example, be seen as having low adaptive functioning for their age group.
  • Social responsibility (social domain): Social responsibility refers to skills such as: the ability to recognize the impacts of our own actions on those around us; being considerate of others’ feelings; and engaging in prosocial behaviors. For example, an individual apologizes for their mistakes or seeks common ground during conflict may be considered to have high adaptive functioning.
  • Household maintenance (practical domain): Specialists often measure household maintenance skills as a measure of an individual’s ability to live independently. It can involve keeping the home clean and tidy, performing intermittent chores such as cleaning the oven, and so on. This may be necessary in order to prevent household health hazards like molds from occurring to ensure a safe living environment.
  • Problem-solving (conceptual domain): Problem-solving skills, like most skills on this list, are age dependent. We may refer to theories of child development, such as stage-based or ‘discontinuous’ development theories, as benchmarks or norms of adaptivity. They could relate to theoretical and educational tasks, as well as practical skills for solving everyday problems.
  • Employment skills (practical domain): Adaptive functioning can also include an individual’s capacity to gain and retain employment, including basic skills like showing up on time, interacting effectively with customers, working independently, and getting along well with co-workers.
  • Risk taking and knowing limits (practical domain): A person who is highly adaptive understands consequences before takin actions, can make in-the-moment risk evaluations, and can avoid potentially dangerous situations if risks outweigh benefits.

Assessing Adaptive Functioning

Today, there are three main tools used to evaluate adaptive functioning, namely, the Adaptive Behavior Assessment System (ABAS), the Vineland Adaptive Behavior Scales (VABS), and the Adaptive Behavior Evaluation Scale (ABES).

Here is a detailed explanation:

1. Adaptive Behavior Assessment System (ABAS)

The ABAS is a widely used standardized assessment tool for measuring adaptive behavior in individuals across ages from birth to adulthood. It measures adaptive behaviors in conceptual, social, and practical domains (Buttlar et al., 2021).

The ABAS consists of a comprehensive set of items that assess basic living skills for different age ranges, including everyday activities, such as dressing themselves weather-appropriate, using public transport, etc. 

The questionnaire consists of over 200 items that seek to draw responses from caregivers or informants to rate the person being evaluated while describing behavior across each area (Buttlar et al., 2021).

It offers a detailed analysis of an individual’s strengths & weaknesses while providing valuable input regarding any interventions required for improving functionality.

2. Vineland Adaptive Behavior Scales (VABS)

The Vineland Adaptive Behavior Scales is another commonly used standardized assessment tool that measures an individual’s adaptive functioning across several life domains.

The VABS assesses personal/societal domains like communication, receptive language, daily living skills, hygiene routines, problem-solving, along with motor development (Offit et al., 2013).

It is widely used for individuals of all ages, from infancy to old age. It offers a comparative approach to evaluating an individual’s level of functioning. 

3. Adaptive Behavior Evaluation Scale (ABES)

This test specifically focuses on evaluating individuals with mental disabilities and developmental disabilities.

The scale uses multiple questions related to functional behaviors, divided into a few subscales: communication, behavior regulation, and daily living skills (Saulnier & Klaiman, 2018).

This standardized performance-based assessment method is being used to aid caregivers in developing advanced personalized plans for community participation activities and daily living.

Importance of Adaptive Functioning

Adaptive functioning is an essential component in evaluating a person’s cognitive functioning and overall health.

Successful adaptive functioning requires mastering daily tasks and developing meaningful social relationships, essential for maintaining a healthy balanced life. 

The importance of adaptive functioning can be highlighted in the following way:

1. Early Detection of Developmental Disorders

Adaptive functioning assessments can help detect developmental disorders such as autism, Down syndrome, or Asperger Syndrome at an early age so that specialized interventions and care programs can be initiated (Moulton et al., 2016).

2. Assessment of Intellectual Disability

When a person’s intelligence quotient (IQ) score falls within the range considered typical to below average concerning their adaptive skills assessment, they may receive a clinical diagnosis of intellectual disabilities (Jonker et al., 2021).

This diagnosis helps them connect with the resources/special education programs adequately tailored to support their development, strengthening their cognitive skills and independent living abilities.

3. Identifying Mental Health Concerns

Individuals experiencing mental disorders like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder tend to struggle with daily living tasks, including maintaining personal hygiene, taking medication on time, and going about routines effectively (Reschly et al., 2015).

So, assessing their adaptive behavior can aid in identifying mental health issues that could impede their functioning, which can lead to taking necessary measures towards improving the quality of their life.

4. Evaluating Functional Decline Due to Aging

Older adults who experience physical deterioration tend to engage less in everyday activities affecting their ability to carry out routine tasks efficiently (Reschly et al., 2015).

Adaptive functioning assessments can identify specific areas where patients require extra support. This can lead to a less complicated life, with assistance provided for domestic chores, transportation needs, and community integration. 


Adaptive functioning refers to a person’s ability to cope with the demands of everyday life and adapt to changing situations. 

It is an essential concept in psychology and psychiatry that helps professionals evaluate an individual’s independent functioning in daily life activities and socialization skills. 

By assessing competency across three domains: conceptual skills, social skills, and practical skills, professionals can provide tailored intervention plans capable of directing affected individuals toward achieving specific health goals.

Poor adaptive functioning performance may indicate different developmental or mental disorders. Such cases unnecessarily result in obstacles hindering personal growth due to management-attributed failure.

Therefore, standardized tools like ABAS, VABS, and ABES can identify and evaluate adaptive functioning when needed. 

In addition, the analysis serves as a useful blueprint highlighting areas where extra assistance may be needed to enable individuals to reach their full self-actualization potential.


Alfieri, P., Scibelli, F., Montanaro, F. A. M., Digilio, M. C., Ravà, L., Valeri, G., & Vicari, S. (2022). Differences and similarities in adaptive functioning between children with autism spectrum disorder and Williams–Beuren syndrome: A longitudinal study. Genes13(7), 1266.

Ali, M., Saad, E., & Eladl, A. (2019). Defining and determining intellectual disability (intellectual developmental disorder): Insights from DSM-5. International Journal of Psycho-Educational Sciences |8(1), 52–54.

Buttlar, A. M., Zabel, T. A., Pritchard, A. E., & Cannon, A. D. (2021). Concordance of the adaptive behavior assessment system , second and third editions. Journal of Intellectual Disability Research65(3), 283–295.

Jonker, F., Didden, R., Goedhard, L., Korzilius, H., & Nijman, H. (2021). The ADaptive Ability Performance Test (ADAPT): A new instrument for measuring adaptive skills in people with intellectual disabilities and borderline intellectual functioning. Journal of Applied Research in Intellectual Disabilities.

Moulton, E., Barton, M., Robins, D. L., Abrams, D. N., & Fein, D. (2016). Early characteristics of children with ASD who demonstrate optimal progress between age two and four. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders46(6), 2160–2173.

Offit, P. A., Snow, A., Fernandez, T., Cardona, L., Grigorenko, E. L., Doyle, C. A., McDougle, C. J., Bolling, D., Smith, E. G., Smith, J., Blackwell, A., Thibodeau, L., Tang, K., Wier, K., McDuffie, A., McDuffie, A., Poyau, S., Silverman, L. B., Dawson, M., & Silverman, L. B. (2013). Vineland Adaptive Behavior Scales. Encyclopedia of Autism Spectrum Disorders, 3281–3284.

Reschly, D. J., Myers, T. G., & Hartel, C. R. (2015). The role of adaptive behavior assessment.; National Academies Press (US).

Saulnier, C. A., & Klaiman, C. (2018). Essentials of adaptive behavior assessment of neurodevelopmental disorders. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Viktoriya Sus

Viktoriya Sus (MA)

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Viktoriya Sus is an academic writer specializing mainly in economics and business from Ukraine. She holds a Master’s degree in International Business from Lviv National University and has more than 6 years of experience writing for different clients. Viktoriya is passionate about researching the latest trends in economics and business. However, she also loves to explore different topics such as psychology, philosophy, and more.

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This article was peer-reviewed and edited by Chris Drew (PhD). The review process on Helpful Professor involves having a PhD level expert fact check, edit, and contribute to articles. Reviewers ensure all content reflects expert academic consensus and is backed up with reference to academic studies. Dr. Drew has published over 20 academic articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education and holds a PhD in Education from ACU.

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