Definitions of Exceptionality

Examine common categories and descriptions of exceptionality


Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) begin and are identified early in childhood and are characterized mostly by severe deficits in social interaction, language delays, and unusual or repetitive behavior. People with autism may not respond to their name or make eye contact, they may have an aversion to cuddling or holding, and they may seem unaware of hurting others' feelings. Language difficulties include talking later than age 2, loss of ability to say words or sentences, inability to make eye contact when asking for something, robot-like speech, inability to keep a conversation going and repeating words verbatim without understanding how to use them. Behavioral oddities may include repetitive movement, specific routines and disturbance by changes to the routines, constant movement, sensory processing issues and fascination by parts of an object.
It is thought that autism spectrum disorders are caused by an abnormality in the brain that develop in the first few years of life. More recently, they have discovered that those diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders have damage to an x chromosome, which is the likely cause of why ASD is more prevalent in males.
Wikipedia Definition
Prezi on Aspergers Syndrome

Auditory Impairments

Over time, the average hearing impaired student shows an ever increasing gap in vocabulary growth, complex sentence comprehension and construction, and in concept formation as compared to students with normal hearing. Hearing impaired students often learn to "feign" comprehension with the end result being that the student does have optimal learning opportunities. Therefore, facilitative strategies for hearing impaired students are primarily concerned with various aspects of communication. Other problems arise because deafness is an invisible disability. It is easy for teachers to "forget about it" and treat the student as not having a disability. It has also been shown that hearing impaired students with good English skills also have good science concept formation. (After "Mainstream Teaching of Science: A Source Book", Keller et al.)

Deaf: "A hearing impairment which is so severe that a child is impaired in processing linguistic information through hearing, with or without amplification, which adversely affects educational performance."

Hard of Hearing: "A hearing impairment, whether permanent of fluctuating, which adversely affects a child's educational performance but which is not included under the definition of 'deaf'."

Deaf-Blind: "Simultaneous hearing and visual impairments, the combination of which causes such severe communication and other developmental and educational problems that a child cannot be accommodated in special education programs solely for deaf children or blind children." (All definitions are from IDEA.)

Wikipedia Definition


Behavioral disorders also known as conduct disorders are one of the most common forms of psycho pathology among children and young adults and is the most frequently cited reason for referral to mental health services. The appearance of behavioral disorders is increasing dramatically in our K-12 classrooms. As a result their presence severely constrains the ability of the school systems to educate students effectively. The prevalence of behavioral problems among children and young adults is substantial. Many surveys indicate that behavioral disorders vary among young adults, ranging from 2 and 6% in K-12 students. This percentage translates into 1.3 to 3.8 million cases of behavioral disorders among the school and pre-college population.
Behavioral disorders become apparent when the student displays a repetitive and impact persistent pattern of behavior that results in the significant disruption in other students. Such disturbances may cause significant impairments in academic, social, and or occupational functioning. Such a behavior pattern is consistent throughout the individuals life. Among the characteristics of a behavioral disorder among children and adolescents are:
  • Initiation of aggressive behavior and reacting aggressively towards others.
  • A display of bullying, threatening, or intimidating behavior.
  • Being physically abusive of others.
  • Deliberate destruction of other's property.
  • Showing little empathy and concern for the feelings, wishes, and well being of others.
  • Showing callous behavior towards others and lack of feelings of guilt or remorse.
  • They may readily inform on their companions and tend to blame others for their own misdeeds.


Anxiety disorders are when anxiety becomes debilitating or unmanageable. Anxiety disorders are the most common of all mental health problems. It is estimated that they affect approximately 1 in 10 people. They are more prevalent among women than among men, and they affect children as well as adults. Anxiety disorders range from generalized anxiety disorders to more specific form such as phobias, post-traumatic stress disorder, or obsessive-compulsive disorders. General anxiety disorders is when one becomes chronically anxious and their anxiety interferes with their ability to function or focus on their daily tasks. They are subject to intense, prolonged feelings of fright and distress for no obvious reason. Anxiety may prevent someone from going places, socializing, or even interacting with their own families. Anxiety can be treated through counseling and/or medication; however, medication must be prescribed by a psychiatrist.

Attachment Disorders

Attachment disorders cover a broad range of conditions that range from oppositional defiance disorder (ODD) to personality disorders. These conditions are grouped together as they are all etiologically related to problems in development. Emotional and developmental deficits often occur from a combination of physical constitution and faulty care taking. Psychodynamic attachment disorders are some of the most complex disorders to understand. People suffering from these disorders do not learn to self-manage emotional autonomy, experience major difficulties In social interactions, and often experience one or more emotional/behavioral disorders.

Oppositional Defiance Disorder

ODD can be present in 1-16% of school-aged children. Those with ODD typically have 2 sets of problems associated with the disorder: aggression and a tendency to bother or annoy others, hence, constant defiance and often have other emotional/behavioral disorders. There is an ongoing pattern of uncooperative, defiant, and hostile behavior toward authority figures that seriously interferes with the youngster's day to day functioning.

Dissociate Disorders

A dissociative disorder is the breakdown of one’s perception of his/her surroundings, memory, identity, or consciousness; an alteration of consciousness that allows an individual to psychologically remove themselves from a situation. Disassociation is a normal defense mechanism for dealing with traumatic situations; however, it becomes a disorder when it interferes with every day life and disallows the individual to stay emotionally present and involved with themselves and their experiences. It is believed that extreme disassociation for extended periods of time, especially for no apparent reason is a precursor to schizophrenia.

Mood Disorders

Mood disorders affect about 10% of the population. People with mood disorders experience highs and lows with greater intensity and for longer periods of time than most people. Mood disorders contain disorders such as depression and bipolar disorder. Like anxiety disorders, mood disorders can be treated through counseling and/or medication. Severe depression is caused from low levels of serotonin in the brain.Bipolar disorder is a result of a chemical imbalance in the brain and those who suffer from the condition experience extreme mood swings which range from severe depression to mania. Mood swing cycle timing can vary between instants, hours, or days.


Schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders are mental conditions in which an individual experiences delusions and hallucinations. Experts are still unclear as to the cause of schizophrenia but believe there to be faulty communication between the left and right side of the brain. Schizophrenia can occur in 0.5-5% of the general population; however, this incidence can grow up to ten times if one has relatives with the condition. Schizophrenia is typically treated with medication. Side effects such as facial tics, jaw movements, and tongue thrusting can be experienced from long-term use of psychotropic medication and can occur in 20-30% of the population.

Somatoform Disorders

Wikipedia Definition - oppositional defiant disorder
Wikipedia Definition - anxiety
Wikipedia Definition -depression (mood)
Wikipedia Definition - mood disorder
Wikipedia Definition - major depressive disorder
Wikipedia Definition - depression (differential diagnoses)

Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD)/Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD)

Attention deficit disorders are disorders characterized by serious and persistent difficulties in attention span, impulse control, and hyperactivity. Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) is a chronic disorder that can begin in infancy and extend through adulthood. It can have a significantly negative effect on an individual's life at home, in school, or in the community. There are two types of attention deficit disorders: undifferentiated Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). In undifferentiated ADD, the primary and most significant characteristic is inattentiveness but hyperactivity is not present. These students still manifest problems with organization and distractibility, even though they may seem quite and passive. These students also tend to be overlooked more easily in the classroom, and may be at a higher risk for academic failure than those with ADHD.
To be diagnosed as having ADHD a student must display, for six months or more, at least eight of the following characteristics prior to the age of seven:
1) fidgets, squirms, or is restless
2) has difficulty remaining seated
3) is easily distracted
4) has difficulty waiting for his/her turn
5) blurts out answers
6) has difficulty following instructions
7) has difficulty sustaining attention
8) shifts from one uncompleted task to another
9) has difficulty playing quietly
10) talks excessively
11) interrupts or is rude to others
12) does not appear to listen
13) often loses things necessary for tasks
14) frequently engages in dangerous actions

After: "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders" (3rd ed., rev.) (American Psychiatric Association, 1987).
CHICAGO, Sept. 30 (AP) - The American Academy of Pediatric Me4dcine has issued its first guidelines for treating attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, suggesting that stimulant drugs may be most effective but that behavioral techniques should also be used. The guidelines appear in the October issue of the medical journal Pediatrics, which will be released Monday.

As many as 3.8 million school-age children, most of them boys, are believed to have attention deficit disorders. Symptoms may include a short attention span, impulsive behavior and difficulty sitting still. The guidelines, which fall in line with those issued in recent years by the National Institute of Mental Health, were created in consultation with child psychiatrists and psychologists. They suggest that the evidence favoring medications like Ritalin is stronger than the evidence about behavioral therapy.

Symptoms improve in at least 80 percent of children on stimulants, and medication should be switched if it is not working, the guidelines say. Critics say that many doctors and teachers turn to drugs like Ritalin as an easy fix and that their long-term effects are uncertain. The guidelines say any treatment should begin only after a diagnosis is certain and doctors, parents and teachers have discussed appropriate treatment goals. The guidelines say drugs should be used with behavioral techniques, including time-outs for hitting. They call for rewarding children when they complete tasks, like homework.

Wikipedia Definition - Attention Deficit
Wikipedia Definition - Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Disorder (FASD)

Wikipedia Definition

Intellectual Disabilities

Most students classified as intellectually impaired are not described by clearly identifiable syndromes, but many times, their impairments have known etiologies. Further, many students are not diagnosed as mentally disabled until well into their preschool or early elementary school years. Early identification of marker characteristics that predispose children to mental impairment allows for environmental intervention to reduce or prevent eventual developmental delay. For some children, the primary factors that produce mental impairment can be found in their environments. For still other children, the interaction of organismically-based influences and environmental variables also result in mental impairment or seriously delayed development. These variables, organismic and environmental, that contribute to mental impairment and delay are termed "risk factors" in development. Research to identify and to help control (intervene, mitigate, and prevent) risk factors and the adverse outcomes of mental impairment are the aims of this theme.
Intellectual impairment means significantly subaverage general intellectual functioning which exists concurrently with deficits in adaptive behavior and manifested during the developmental period that adversely affects a student's educational performance (34 CFR, Ch. III, Sec. 300.7).
According to the above definition, three IQ criteria must be met before an individual should be classified as mentally retarded:

Mental Impairment is one of the most frequently occurring disabilities that occurs in the inclusive classroom. In the US, some 13.3% of all students in special education are classified as being mentally impaired. For example, in West Virginia, there are 15.4% who are mildly impaired, 4.8% moderately impaired, 0.7% severely impaired, and 0.5% profoundly impaired. Total percent of mentally disabled in West Virginia is 21.4%. In terms of IQ range, four groups are classified (by IQ) as:
  • Students who are mildly impaired have an IQ range of 51-70 and are in many ways quite similar to their peers who are not impaired.
  • Students who have moderate impairments have an IQ range of 36-50 and are more obviously developmentally delayed. Students who are moderately impaired can learn to take care of their personal needs and perform hands-on vocational tasks.
  • Students who are severely impaired have an IQ range of 21-35 and are more dependent on others for basic needs. Students who are severely impaired can learn basic self-care and can contribute partially to self-support usually under supervision.
  • Students who are profoundly impaired have an IQ range below 20 and may be largely dependent on others for their care.
Wikipedia Definition

Learning Disabilities

Most people know, or are taught, at an early age, how to process information and develop an organized plan or strategy when confronted with a problem, whether that problem is social, academic, or job related. Others find such cognitive processes quite difficult. Learning disabilities have only recently been recognized as disabilities. This neurological disorder causes difficulty in organizing information received, remembering them, and expressing information and therefore affects a person's basic function such as reading, writing, comprehension, and reasoning. However, these students with learning disabilities can be taught effective learning strategies that will help them approach tasks more effectively. (From: Learning Strategies for Problem Learners, by Thomas Lombardi).

Possible Indicators in Young Children

Although coordination problems are not always a sign of learning disability, there has been evidence that a high percentage of children with learning disabilities do have coordination problems.
If the child exhibits some of the following characteristics for extended periods of teim, you may want to have him/her tested.
Indication observations:
  • Difficulty learning new skills, relying on memorization
  • Trouble learning about time
  • Difficulty remembering facts
  • Confusing basic words (dog, cat, run)
  • Poor coordination, 'accident prone', unaware of physical surroundings
  • Having a hard time learning the connection between letters and sounds (Phonetics)
  • Spelling and reading errors such as substitutions (house/home), letter reversals (b/d), inversions (m/w) and transpositions (felt/left)
  • Problems with planning
  • Impulsive behavior
  • Transposes number sequences and confuses arithmetic signs

Wikipedia Definition

Motor/Orthopedic Impairments

Motor impaired/orthopedic disabilities includes a heterogeneous grouping of conditions with a wide range of causes. Examples of some of the more common causes are: Nervous system disorders Traumatic spinal cord injury Stroke Muscular Dystrophy Cerebral Palsy Epilepsy Muscular-skeletal disorders Rheumatoid arthritis Cardiovascular disease Coronary heart disease Respiratory Disorders Emphysema Asthma Endocrine-metabolic Diabetes Amputation of all types.
One of the first considerations in the effective science education of individuals with motor/orthopedic impairments is a brief understanding of his/her impairment and the degree of educational limitation it causes. With such information, a set of mitigative strategies can be derived that are fully appropriate to that particular student, however, some of the strategies may not work for every student. (After "Mainstream Teaching of Science: A Source Book", Keller et al.)


Epilepsy is not a disease, but a malfunction of the electrical pathways in the neurons (nerve cells) of the brain. Epileptic seizures are a result of these neuro-electrical irregularities in the brain neurons. Anti-convulsant medication can either completely or partially control seizures in approximately 80 percent of the epileptic individuals. A major problem with epileptic students whose seizures are not completely controlled by medication is the non-predictability of the occurrence of seizures.

Cerebral Palsy

Cerebral palsy is the term that covers a wide range of physical disabilities caused by damage to the brain during development. The impairment can range from severe to mild. Movement and posture are impaired, and other conditions such as intellectual impairment, epilepsy, blindness, or deafness may also exist, depending on which area of the brain has been affected and the extent of the damage. Most people with cerebral palsy are not intellectually disabled, and most cerebral palsy individuals with physical impairments usually have a normal range of intelligence. It is believed that 85% to 95% of individuals with cerebral palsy also have speech impairments. Palsy is a synonym for paralysis, but in this case has come to describe weakness and inability to make many voluntary movements and suppress involuntary ones. The form of cerebral palsy may change form from year to year, especially during the early years of growth.
Between 500,000 and 700,000 Americans have cerebral palsy, and in the United States, about 1,500 babies are born with it each year. The details of the causes of cerebral palsy are still unclear but it is believed that premature birth, low birth weight, difficult or abnormal delivery, infections in the mother during pregnancy, lead poisoning, excessive consumption of alcohol, excessive smoking by the mother, and hypoxia are significant risk factors.
Because of the breadth of impairments, there is a wide range of strategies that are applicable: see the motor/orthopedic sections of this site. In cases where other impairments (as listed above) are involved, go to that section in strategies.
Please click here to learn more about cerebral palsy.



Prosthetic limb amputee

Wheel chair

Wikipedia Definition

Multiple Disabilities

Wikipedia Definition

Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI)

Wikipedia Definition

Speech/Language Impairments

Communication Disorders involve a wide variety of problems in speech, language, and hearing. For example, speech and language disorders include stuttering, aphasia, dysfluency, voice disorders (hoarseness, breathiness, or sudden breaks in loudness or pitch), cleft lip and/or palate, articulation problems, delays in speech and language, autism, and phonological disorders.
Speech and language impairments and disorders can be attributed to environmental factors, of which the most commonly known are High Risk Register problems, which include drugs taken during pregnancy, common STD's such as syphilis, and birthing trauma to name a few. Communication disorders can also stem from other conditions such as learning disabilities, dyslexia, cerebral palsy, and mental retardation.
Individuals with communication disorderto the student with a disability as you would any other student.
  • Bring to the student's attention science role models with disabilities with a similar disability to that of the student. Point out that this individual got ahead by a combination of effort and by asking for help when needed.
  • Students with communication disorders should be encouraged to discuss their functional difficulties and needs in private during the first week of classes and to talk about ways to compensate.
  • When it appears that a student needs help, ask if you can help. Accept a "No Thank You" graciously.
  • Encourage classmates to accept the student with communicative problems.
  • Be a good speech model. This will indicate to all that good communication is desirable.
  • An atmosphere conductive to easy and good interactive communication should be established and maintained in the classroom.
  • Consult a Speech Language expert concerning each child with a communicative disorder in your class and work with him/her throughout the class.
  • Keep up-to-date on the student's accomplishments in therapy.
  • Give students with speech impairments opportunity to speak in class.
  • Give them time to express themselves, do not interrupt or try to fill in gaps for them.
  • Speak to them naturally.

Wikipedia Definition - speech disorder
Wikipedia Definition - specific language impairment

Visual Impairments

There are two main functional categories of visual impairments: Low Vision and Blind. Low vision students usually are print users , but may require special equipment and materials. The definition of legal blindness covers a broad spectrum of visual impairments. The extent of visual disability depends upon the physical sensory impairment of the student's eyes, the age of the student at the onset of vision impairment, and the way in which that impairment occurred. Vision also may fluctuate or may b e influenced by factors such as inappropriate lighting, light glare, or fatigue. Hence, there is no "typical" vision impaired student. The major challenge facing visually impaired students in the science educational environment is the overwhelming mass o f visual material to which they are continually exposed, viz., textbooks, class outlines, class schedules, chalkboards writing, etc. In addition, the increase in the use of films, videotapes, computers, laser disks, and television adds to the volume of v isual material to which they have only limited access. To assist in overcoming a students' visual limitation requires unique and individual strategies based on that student's particular visual impairment and his/her skill of communication (e.g., Braille, speed listening, etc.). (After: "The Mainstream Teaching of Science: A Source Book", Keller et al.)
Wikipedia Definition

Other Health Impairments

Nature Deficit Disorder:
Wikipedia Definition
Prezi on Nature Deficit Disorder

Anorexia nervosa
Wikipedia Definition