Frequently Asked Questions (faqs) about Special Education

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What are the various categories of special education?

This varies a bit from State to State, but the Federal guidelines (which all States must follow) identifies the following categories:

You can find out how your State interprets these guideline by contacting your local public school special education department.

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How is a child identified for special education services?

Any child or student aged 3 - 21 can be referred for a special education evaluation through their local public school. This referral can be made by anyone familiar with and concerned about the child (parent, teacher, physician, etc.). This referral is then reviewed by the school's special education department to determine what, if any assessment needs to be done in order to determine possible special education eligibility. In some cases there may already be enough information to determine or rule-out special education eligibility. In other cases additional assessment will be recommended. The parent must be notified of any referral which is made regarding their child. In addition, parental consent is required for special education assessment and/or services.

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 I think my child has a problem in school - what should I do first?

When you believe that your child is struggling in school, the first step in sorting things out is to consult with your child's teacher about what kinds of problems are being observed in the classroom and how your child's academic and/or social progress compares with that of the other students. Frequently, what a parent views as an apparent problem is really very normal and consistent with the progress of other students. In that case, it may be wise for parent and teacher to 'keep an eye on the situation' but not necessarily pursue any type of formal evaluation process just yet.

It is very important to understand that special education services are intended for 'handicapped' students who NEED specialized instruction and intervention in order to receive an appropriate education. So if your child is already achieving at a level comparable to his/her peers (even if you think he/she should be doing better) a formal special education evaluation is probably not necessary or appropriate.

On the other hand, if the teacher shares your concerns and feels that your child is not currently gaining an appropriate education, chances are he or she already has some thoughts about a possible cause. After all, the classroom teacher should be considered your educational 'expert' and has probably dealt with just about every possible childhood issue, syndrome, or condition. So respect and rely upon this expert to help you support your child.

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Are there other school 'experts' that I can consult at no cost?

While your child's classroom teacher should be considered your first line of defense, there are also other educational experts available for support and consultation. Whether or not your child is attending a public school, if there is concern (by you or the classroom teacher) that your child may have a need for special education services, the special education professionals of your local public school district are available to you and your child at no cost.

So before you even think about spending hundreds of dollars consulting with professionals in private clinics outside of the school district, you should first contact your local special education department and discuss your concerns and/or those of the classroom teacher. This can either be accomplished over the phone or in a more formal meeting. In either case, be prepared to provide the special education professionals with any available documentation (test scores, grades, work samples) to support your concerns. Aside from the fact that this consultation is free, your local special education professionals are also in the very best position to not only determine the appropriateness of conducting an evaluation, but also can clarify for you what possible special education services could be available to your child.

Even if both you and the classroom teacher see a problem, the special education professionals may decide that an evaluation is not appropriate at the current time. This primarily occurs when they feel that there is already enough information available to determine that your child would not be eligible for special education services at this time. If this is their decision, be sure to ask them to clarify exactly how they arrived at that decision and what, if anything, they might recommend to you and/or the classroom teacher so that you can best support your child.

If the special education professionals determine that an evaluation (testing) is necessary and appropriate, be sure that they clarify for you exactly what type of testing they would recommend, when and where it can be completed, and how/when the results will be shared with you.

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Where can I have my child tested?

If your primary concern is whether or not your child is eligible for special education services, then the best thing to do is simply follow the direction of your local special education professionals in determining if testing is needed and where it should be done. Almost always, special education testing is best done by the special education professionals at your local public school who are trained specifically to determine eligibility for special education services and to provide appropriate educational intervention. Any testing provided by your local public school is provided at no cost to you.

Of course a parent also has the right to seek an evaluation outside of the school at their own expense. The school or State department of special education may be able to direct you to various evaluation options or you can check your local 'Yellow Pages' under 'Educational Consultants and Services'. If an evaluation is conducted outside of the school, these findings must be considered when determining possible special education eligibility. It should be noted, however, that private agencies that conduct psychological or educational evaluations often do not fully understand State and/or Federal special education criteria and rarely can determine eligibility for special education services. It is also quite possible for such an agency to identify some type of psychological or learning disorder (such as ADHD, depression, dyslexia, etc.) even when the child does not meet eligibility for special education services (see below).

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My child has dyslexia (or dysgraphia, dyscalculia, nonverbal LD - NVLD, central auditory processing disorder - CAPD, etc.) but the school says he doesn't qualify for special ed - how can this be?

The term 'dyslexia' describes a generalized reading disorder. Similar terms include dysgraphia (writing), dyscalculia (math), nonverbal learning disability (NVLD), central auditory processing disorder (CAPD), etc. Often these are terms used by agencies outside of the public school to describe learning and/or cognitive processing difficulties which a child may be experiencing. Unfortunately, these 'diagnoses' do not have any clear or consistently used criteria to identify how significant the problem may be. In contrast, special education laws provide very strict criteria for identification of various handicapping conditions such as Specific Learning Disability. Special education services are intended for only the most severely handicapped students. So it is quite possible (and really not very unusual) for a student to demonstrate symptoms of dyslexia (or other diagnosis) without meeting the eligibility requirements for special education services. When a student has such a documented 'handicap' which does not meet special education eligibility requirements, the school should consider the possibility of a section 504 plan. Also see a comparison between 504 and special ed.

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My child has learning problems and behavioral problems - what category of special ed might he fit?

Learning and behavioral difficulties often go hand-in-hand. Many children with learning disabilities exhibit behavior problems due to their frustration in school. On the other hand, a student with an emotional disturbance (sometimes referred to as an emotional/behavioral disorder) will often have learning problems due to the interference of their behavior. It is the responsibility of the special education assessment team (which includes the parent) to determine the real underlying cause of the educational and/or behavioral difficulties. In addition, the category 'Other Health Impairment' may be a consideration if the learning and/or behavioral difficulties are directly related to an underlying health or medical condition (such as an attention deficit disorder - ADD or ADHD). In some cases, a single special education category can be determined. In other cases the assessment team will decide that 2 or more categories are needed to clearly and correctly identify the child's areas of need. Regardless of the category or categories chosen, the Individual Education Plan (IEP) should be written to address all areas of educational need.

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My child has an attention deficit disorder - is that a category in special ed?

This is an area of confusion for many parents (and even some schools). Technically, there is not a specific category of special education for students with ADD or ADHD. And specifically, ADD/ADHD in and of itself is not necessarily considered a form of 'learning disability'. However, when the ADD/ADHD significantly interferes with a child's education, it is quite possible for him/her to meet eligibility criteria within one of the following categories:

  • specific learning disability

  • emotional disturbance

  • other health impairment

Other Health Impairment is generally the most appropriate category for such a student, however, depending upon the specific educational and emotional/behavioral characteristics observed, the other 2 categories may also be considered. If it is found that your child's needs are not severe enough to qualify for special education services, the school should also consider the possibility of a section 504 plan.

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Federal Categories of Special Education 

  • (1) Autism

    • (i) Autism means a developmental disability significantly affecting verbal and nonverbal communication and social interaction, generally evident before age 3, that adversely affects a child's educational performance. Other characteristics often associated with autism are engagement in repetitive activities and stereotyped movements, resistance to environmental change or change in daily routines, and unusual responses to sensory experiences. The term does not apply if a child's educational performance is adversely affected primarily because the child has an emotional disturbance, as defined in paragraph (b)(4) of this section.


    • (ii) A child who manifests the characteristics of 'autism' after age 3 could be diagnosed as having 'autism' if the criteria in paragraph (c)(1)(i) of this section are satisfied.

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  • (2) Deaf-blindness means concomitant hearing and visual impairments, the combination of which causes such severe communication and other developmental and educational needs that they cannot be accommodated in special education programs solely for children with deafness or children with blindness.

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  • (3) Deafness means a hearing impairment that is so severe that the child is impaired in processing linguistic information through hearing, with or without amplification, that adversely affects a child's educational performance.

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  • (4) Emotional disturbance is defined as follows:

    • (i) The term means a condition exhibiting one or more of the following characteristics over a long period of time and to a marked degree that adversely affects a child's educational performance:

      • (A) An inability to learn that cannot be explained by intellectual, sensory, or health factors.

        (B) An inability to build or maintain satisfactory interpersonal relationships with peers and teachers.

        (C) Inappropriate types of behavior or feelings under normal circumstances.

        (D) A general pervasive mood of unhappiness or depression.

        (E) A tendency to develop physical symptoms or fears associated with personal or school problems.

      (ii) The term includes schizophrenia. The term does not apply to children who are socially maladjusted, unless it is determined that they have an emotional disturbance.

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  • (5) Hearing impairment means an impairment in hearing, whether permanent or fluctuating, that adversely affects a child's educational performance but that is not included under the definition of deafness in this section.

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  • (6) Mental retardation means significantly subaverage general intellectual functioning, existing concurrently with deficits in adaptive behavior and manifested during the developmental period, that adversely affects a child's educational performance.

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  • (7) Multiple disabilities means concomitant impairments (such as mental retardation-blindness, mental retardation-orthopedic impairment, etc.), the combination of which causes such severe educational needs that they cannot be accommodated in special education programs solely for one of the impairments. The term does not include deaf-blindness.

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  • (8) Orthopedic impairment means a severe orthopedic impairment that adversely affects a child's educational performance. The term includes impairments caused by congenital anomaly (e.g., clubfoot, absence of some member, etc.), impairments caused by disease (e.g., poliomyelitis, bone tuberculosis, etc.), and impairments from other causes (e.g., cerebral palsy, amputations, and fractures or burns that cause contractures).

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  • (9) Other health impairment means having limited strength, vitality or alertness, including a heightened alertness to environmental stimuli, that results in limited alertness with respect to the educational environment, that

    • (i) Is due to chronic or acute health problems such as asthma, attention deficit disorder or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, diabetes, epilepsy, a heart condition, hemophilia, lead poisoning, leukemia, nephritis, rheumatic fever, and sickle cell anemia; and

      (ii) Adversely affects a child's educational performance.

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  • (10) Specific learning disability is defined as follows:

    • (i) General. The term means a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, that may manifest itself in an imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or to do mathematical calculations, including conditions such as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia.

      (ii) Disorders not included. The term does not include learning problems that are primarily the result of visual, hearing, or motor disabilities, of mental retardation, of emotional disturbance, or of environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage.

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  • (11) Speech or language impairment means a communication disorder, such as stuttering, impaired articulation, a language impairment, or a voice impairment, that adversely affects a child's educational performance.

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  • (12) Traumatic brain injury means an acquired injury to the brain caused by an external physical force, resulting in total or partial functional disability or psychosocial impairment, or both, that adversely affects a child's educational performance. The term applies to open or closed head injuries resulting in impairments in one or more areas, such as cognition; language; memory; attention; reasoning; abstract thinking; judgment; problem-solving; sensory, perceptual, and motor abilities; psychosocial behavior; physical functions; information processing; and speech. The term does not apply to brain injuries that are congenital or degenerative, or to brain injuries induced by birth trauma.

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  • (13) Visual impairment including blindness means an impairment in vision that, even with correction, adversely affects a child's educational performance. The term includes both partial sight and blindness.

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Return to the LDinfo Web Site to find out about any of the following topics (and more):

Learning disabilities - what is a learning disability (LD or SLD)?

Dyslexia: Dyslexia is a reading disability or reading disorder

Dysgraphia Dysgraphia is a writing disability or disorder

Dyscalculia Dyscalculia is a math disability or disorder

What is an attention deficit disorder (ADD, AD/HD, ADHD)?

Gifted LD: Can a student be gifted and LD?

Emotional/Behavioral issues and LD: Do LD students experience behavior problems or depression?

Section 504: What is a Section 504 plan?

What is special education?

What is processing?

What is a severe discrepancy?

What is a nonverbal learning disability (nonverbal LD or NLD)?

What is a central auditory processing disorder (CAPD)?

What is IDEA?

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