Special Needs Vocabulary

A glossary of frequently used words for children with special needs

For parents with children recently diagnosed with special needs or anyone navigating parenthood with an exceptional child, we hope this glossary of terms will help guide you.

Adaptive Development:
Self-care or daily living skills.

An individual who is not an attorney, but who assists parents and children in their dealings with school districts regarding the children's special education programs.

Assistive Technology:
Devices, equipment or services that help a person with special needs.

Autism Spectrum Disorder:
A developmental disorder that is present prior to the age of 3 that affects normal development of communication and social skills, and may include preoccupation with parts of objects, body rocking or self-injurious behavior, ranging from severe to high functioning autism.

Brain Injury:
Damage or trauma to the brain that may affect memory, muscle control or other neurological functions.

Conduct Disorder:
A repetitive and persistent pattern of behavior that violates the basic rights of others or major age-appropriate societal norms or rules.

Developmental Assessment:
A comprehensive examination of a child’s skills, behaviors and family situation.

Developmental Delay:
Describes the development of children who have not reached various milestones in the time frame typical for children of the same chronological age.

Developmental Disability:
A mental or physical condition beginning in childhood where the child acquires skills at a slower rate than his or her peers, the condition is expected to go on indefinitely, and the condition restricts the child’s ability to function in society.

Early Intervention:
Specific services provided to infants and toddlers showing signs of, or at risk of, having a developmental delay.

Emotional Disturbance:
Chronic difficulties in the emotional and behavioral areas. May also be referred to as Behavioral Disturbance (BD) or Emotional-Behavioral Disturbance (EBD).

Established Risk:
When a child has already been identified with a condition that relates to another condition impacting the child’s development.

Genetic Disorder:
Disease transmitted from one generation to the next through genes.

Full participation of children with special needs in programs designed for typically developing children.

Individualized Education Plan (IEP):
A written program plan that states the individual goals for a child, and the accommodations and services the school district agrees to provide for the child receiving special education.

Individual Family Service Plan (IFSP):
Documents the delivery of community-based, interagency services for families with young children who have disabilities.

Learning Disability (LD):
A disorder that impacts the ability to interpret what is seen and heard and/or link information from different parts of the brain. These difficulties are not caused by mental retardation or known physical problems.

A preference for the education of every child in the least restrictive environment for each student, and is widely used to refer to the return of children with mild disabilities to a regular classroom for a portion of each school day.

Neurological Disorder:
Disorders or significant problems of the central nervous system.

Occupational Therapy (OT):
A type of health-care treatment to improve self-help skills and adaptive behavior for people with development delays, illnesses or injuries that impede their ability to function independently.

Physical Therapy (PT):
Treatment or therapy designed to help an individual who has difficulty with physical movement improve muscle strength, range of motion and motor skills.

Receptive Language:
Understanding the thoughts, feelings, desires and needs communicated by others through verbal and nonverbal elements.

Respite Care:
A short period of rest or relief when a child with a disability is cared for by a third party to allow the parent(s) to take care of other needs away from the child with a disability.

Sensory Integration:
The inability of the brain to organize information coming in through the senses.

Speech and Language Therapy (SLT):
Therapeutic treatment to address speech and language impairments or deficits.

Speech or Language Impairment (SLI):
Communication problems that have to do with speech disorders.

Sources: Center for the Improvement of Child Caring and The Council for Disability Rights