Most people often don’t have reason to learn about special education unless their children are directly affected. Yet even then, there are often too many terms to know and a lot of confusing overlap.

With the second part of our special-education glossary, we hope to alleviate some of that confusion. Here, we’re sharing definitions of specific disabilities, treatments and philosophies.

The first part focused on complex legal terms and some useful offices and programs in Seattle and Washington. These glossaries are part of our ongoing coverage of what we’re calling specialized education, a look at special education and other student populations with specific needs. Still confused? Email us at if we missed something you want to see defined.

Special education can be confusing. Here are terms and programs you should know.

Disabilities and diagnoses

Physical disabilities — The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) calls these “orthopedic impairments,” and the category includes physical disabilities that can affect a child’s education. These disabilities can be caused by an anomaly at birth, disease or other causes like amputation. This category also includes hearing and vision impairments.

Learning disabilities — Disorders that may manifest as difficulties with listening, speaking, reading (dyslexia), writing (dysgraphia), or mathematical calculations (dyscalculia). These do not include learning problems stemming from visual, hearing or motor disabilities.

Intellectual disabilities — All boil down to two components: a student’s IQ and their ability to function independently. A student with an IQ below 70 to 75 — or below average “general intellectual functioning,” as defined by IDEA — along with a lower capability to be independent, would be considered to have an intellectual disability. Causes can include complications at birth, health problems or genetic conditions such as Down syndrome.


Autism Spectrum Disorder — This developmental disorder is characterized by difficulties with verbal and nonverbal communication, as well as social interaction. Repetitive behaviors or actions are also commonly associated with ASD. Asperger Syndrome is now part of the spectrum. In a classroom, ASD could manifest as disinterest, trouble following directions or an inability to form words.

Emotional or Behavioral Disturbance (EBD) — This disturbance becomes a specific condition when a student struggles with one or more emotional or behavioral difficulties over a long period of time, and it affects their education. These difficulties often cause an inability to learn that can’t be explained by intellectual or health factors. EBD can include anxiety disorders, depression, bipolar disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Twice exceptional — Also known as “2E,” this term refers to students who are defined as gifted or high-achieving by their school district, but who may also have a disability or need for special-education services. Often it is difficult for these students to receive both sets of services they need, and some may not even receive a special-education diagnosis. Learn more from the National Association for Gifted Children.


Treatments and responses

Response to Intervention (RTI) — Teachers use RTI to help students who are struggling with a skill, subject or behavior. It is not specific to special-education students. RTI is predicated on the belief that schools should try different things to help a struggling student improve, and they should keep trying until something proves most helpful for that student.

Early Intervention — This refers to services meant to help babies and toddlers up to age 3 with developmental delays or disabilities. Early Intervention focuses on helping these children learn basic skills like reaching, walking, talking, listening, eating and playing. Some services are physical therapy, speech or language therapy and assistive technology like hearing aids.

Restraint and isolation — Washington state allows restraint or isolation of a student only when “reasonably necessary to control spontaneous behavior that poses an imminent likelihood of serious harm,” according to the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI). Every school district must report instances of physically restraining or isolating a student.



Ideas and philosophies

Neurodiversity — This concept advocates for recognizing and respecting neurological differences like any other naturally occurring variation in humans. For instance, people on the Autism Spectrum who adhere to neurodiversity reject the notion of “curing” autism and instead seek ways to allow them to live and learn as themselves, as people with autism. This is related to self-determination or self-advocacy, the idea that people with disabilities should be making their own decisions.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) — Designing classrooms and learning environments that are flexible and accommodate all kinds of learning differences.

Invisible disabilities — Any physical, intellectual or learning disability that is invisible to an onlooker. This category has become more prominent in recent years because of misunderstandings or false judgments people with disabilities face when seeking basic services.

Ableism — Discrimination against people with disabilities.