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In the beginning of a special needs diagnosis, you’ll come across a lot of terms that may seem like a foreign language.

Among them are terms related to the (sometimes) overwhelming world of special education terminology. Because of that, I wanted to make a list of frequently used terms that you may come across as you progress through this world of special needs parenting and into special needs advocacy. That’s why I want to share this parent’s guide on how to understand special education terms.

Some of the terms listed are autism related or autism specific, but I’ve also tried to include many general terms in this post. I would also like to say: I’m not an expert, just a mom trying to help out.

I have provided resource links at the bottom of the post as well. I can remember sitting in my first IFSP meeting and feeling quite lost. Even with numerous IEP meetings following that, I still had a difficult time grasping the concepts that were being thrown around as if it was everyday language.

If you're new to the world of special education, it can be quite intimidating. Here's a new parent's guide on how to understand special education terms.

The world of special education can be very overwhelming. Here's a new parent's guide to understanding special education terms.

One of the coping skills that I ended up developing was research. This helped me immensely when it came time to start the IFSP process for my autistic daughter. In fact, it helped with developing a transition strategy for both myself and for her.

Understanding General Special Education Terminology

To first understand the vast range of special educational terminology, let’s start with some basics.

  • IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act)– originally passed in 1975 to ensure that children with disabilities have access to a free and appropriate education. See the resource links for a helpful website.
  • FAPE (Free and Appropriate Public Education)- special education and related services that are provided at public expense and free of charge, in an appropriate school (preschool, elementary, or secondary), and in compliance with the individual’s IEP.
  • IEP (Individualized Education Program) – 1.) a written statement for a child with a disability that is developed, reviewed, and revised in a meeting. 2.) A statement of measurable goals including academic and functional. 3.) A statement of the special education and related services and supplementary aids and services, based on peer-reviewed research to the extent practicable, to be provided to the child, or on behalf of the child, and a statement of the program modifications or supports for school personnel that will be provided to enable the child.
  • 504 Plan (Source: KidsHeath)- Section 504 of the U.S. Rehabilitation Act of 1973 is designed to help parents of students with physical or mental impairments in public schools, or publicly funded private schools, work with educators to design customized educational plans. These 504 plans legally ensure that students will be treated fairly at school. It is also extremely important to know that a 504 plan is not the same as an IEP.
  • IFSP (Individualized Family Service Plan) – a written document that outlines the early intervention services that your child and family will receive.
  • EI (Early Intervention)- a system of services that helps babies and toddlers with developmental delays or disabilities.
  • Service Coordinator- A  professional who provide oversight and coordination of the services outlined in IFSP.
  • Developmental Delay- A delay in one of the five developmental areas:  cognitive, physical (including hearing and vision), communication, social or emotional, and adaptive.
  • Related Services (as defined by IDEA) Related services means transportation and such developmental, corrective, and other supportive services as are required to assist a child with a disability to benefit from special education, and includes speech-language pathology and audiology services, interpreting services, psychological services, physical and occupational therapy, recreation, including therapeutic recreation, early identification and assessment of disabilities in children, counseling services, including rehabilitation counseling, orientation and mobility services, and medical services for diagnostic or evaluation purposes. Related services also include school health services and school nurse services, social work services in schools, and parent counseling and training.
  • Special Education- instruction specifically designed to meet the educational and developmental needs of children with disabilities, or those who are experiencing developmental delay
  • SLP (Speech Language Pathologist or Speech Therapist)- a professional who assesses, diagnoses, treats, and helps to prevent communication and swallowing disorders in patients.
  • Occupational Therapist- a professional who treats injured, ill, or disabled patients through the therapeutic use of everyday activities.
  • Physical Therapist- a professional who helps injured or ill people improve their movement and/or manage their pain.
  • Behavioral Therapist- a professional who treats people with mental health disorders, helping them change their behaviors or their reactions to certain situations. Behavioral therapists treat patients with a range of conditions and in a variety of age groups, often beginning in childhood.
  • CSE (Committee on Special Education)- This may be a state specific term, but in New York State, this refers to the committee on special education. A group of educational professionals who help to design and approve your child’s IEP. If you live in New York, I strongly recommend finding out who your CSE chairperson is and that you keep their contact information handy,
  • CPSE (Committee on Preschool Special Education) – Similar to the Committee on Special Education, the duties of the CPSE begin when your child is ready to transition out from the Early Intervention Program. A successful transition will include an assessment of goals from your child’s IFSP and help to put those existing goals (in addition to new ones, if necessary) on your child’s IEP.

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The world of special education can be downright confusing for parents. Here's a new parent's guide on how to understand special education terms.

Autism Specific or Autism Related Special Education Terminology

  • Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)- a neurological disorder defined as follows (source: National Institute of Mental Health):
    • Persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction across multiple contexts;
    • Restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities;
    • Symptoms must be present in the early developmental period (typically recognized in the first two years of life); and,
    • Symptoms cause clinically significant impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of current functioning.
  • ABA (Applied Behavioral Analysis)- a type of therapy that employs the principles of applied behavioral analysis. Applied behavioral analysis focuses on the connection between individual behavior and the environment and aims to regulate and predict behavior based on this relationship.
  • DTT (Discrete Trial Training)- a method of teaching in simplified and structured steps. Instead of teaching an entire skill in one go, the skill is broken down and “built-up” using discrete trials that teach each step one at a time (Smith, 2001).
  • PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System) PECS was developed in 1985 as a unique augmentative/alternative communication intervention package for individuals with autism spectrum disorder and related developmental disabilities. First used at the Delaware Autistic Program, PECS has received worldwide recognition for focusing on the initiation component of communication. PECS does not require complex or expensive materials. It was created with families, educators, and resident care providers in mind, so is readily used in a range of settings. (Pyramid USA).
  • TEACCH (Treatment and Education of Autistic and related Communication handicapped Children. Source- NIMH) emphasizes adapting the child’s physical environment and using visual cues (for example, having classroom materials clearly marked and located so that students can access them independently). Using individualized plans for each student, TEACCH builds on the child’s strengths and emerging skills.
  • Developmental, Individual Difference, Relationship-based(DIR)/Floortime Model (source NIMH)aims to build healthy and meaningful relationships and abilities by following the natural emotions and interests of the child. One particular example is the Early Start Denver Model, which fosters improvements in communication, thinking, language, and other social skills and seeks to reduce atypical behaviors. Using developmental and relationship-based approaches, this therapy can be delivered in natural settings such as the home or pre-school.
  • SPD (Sensory Processing Disorder)- a condition that exists when sensory signals don’t get organized into appropriate responses. Pioneering occupational therapist and neuroscientist A. Jean Ayres, PhD, likened SPD to a neurological “traffic jam” that prevents certain parts of the brain from receiving the information needed to interpret sensory information correctly. A person with SPD finds it difficult to process and act upon information received through the senses, which creates challenges in performing countless everyday tasks. Motor clumsiness, behavioral problems, anxiety, depression, school failure, and other impacts may result if the disorder is not treated effectively. (Source- SPD Foundation)
  • Apraxia (Source: National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke)- (called “dyspraxia” if mild) is a neurological disorder characterized by loss of the ability to execute or carry out skilled movements and gestures, despite having the desire and the physical ability to perform them.
  • Dyspraxia (Source: National Center for Learning Disabilities)- a disorder that affects motor skill development. People with dyspraxia have trouble planning and completing fine motor tasks. This can vary from simple motor tasks such as waving goodbye to more complex tasks like brushing teeth.
  • Rett Syndrome (Source: National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke)- a neurodevelopmenal disorder that affects girls almost exclusively. It is characterized by normal early growth and development followed by a slowing of development, loss of purposeful use of the hands, distinctive hand movements, slowed brain and head growth, problems with walking, seizures, and intellectual disability.  

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Resource Links for Understanding Special Education

Special education can be so confusing and sometimes overwhelming for parents. Here's a new parent's guide on how to understand special education terms.

Please note that these are all national resources as listing state specific is a task that I simply do not have the time to properly invest in. I may, in the future, start a state-by-state resource listing for Autism specific resources as that is my passion area. I hope that this post was at least of some help when it comes to understanding special education terminology.

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Digital Product Creator at Kori at Home
Kori is a late diagnosed autistic/ADHD mom. She is currently located in Albany, NY where she is raising a neurodiverse family. Her older daughter is non-speaking autistic (and also has ADHD and Anxiety) and her youngest daughter is HSP/Gifted. A blogger, podcaster, writer, product creator, and coach; Kori shares autism family life- the highs, lows, messy, and real. Kori brings her own life experiences as an autistic woman combined with her adventures in momming to bring you the day-to-day of her life at home. Kori is on a mission to empower moms of autistic children to make informed parenting decisions with confidence and conviction.

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Crystal & Co
9 years ago

As a parent of a dyslexic child, 504 meetings and plans are vital. Don’t count on the school to lead the way. Knowledge is power for the parent. Do your research, know your rights, state your expectations. Sign nothing and agree to nothing that you are not comfortable with. Contact The Office of Civil Rights and file a grievance if your requests are being ignored or denied by the administration at the school. It is interesting how hearing improves with school administration when you involve The Office of Civil Right. It’s sad we even have to do this. I have… Read more »

Dawn @ Pin-n-Tell
9 years ago

What a wealth of information! Thank you for this fab list. I’m passing it on to my good friend, whose daughter was just diagnosed with Autism.

Heather Stone
9 years ago

Great Great Great post. I am mom of a son with Asperger. The more awareness that is spread — wow what a world of difference we will all see. Schools are sadly way behind in their learning and teaching to the staff about Autism and I also believe Bullying as well. Thank you for sharing!

Creative Khadija
9 years ago

Thanks for sharing the detailed information! have a good day 🙂

Elayna Fernandez ~ The Positive MOM
9 years ago

This is an amazing resource. I am sharing in my mom network and I am sure they will be blessed by this compilation. Thank you!