Cognitive Disability

How does IDEA define Cognitive Disabilities?

While the term "cognitive disabilities is not used in IDEA, there are two disability areas which are addressed in the regulations. They are mental retardation and traumatic brain injury. Here are the specific definitions from section 300.7(c) of the IDEA regulations.

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

(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.

Tell me more about Mental Retardation

An individual is considered to have mental retardation based on the following three criteria: intellectual functioning level (IQ) is below 70-75; significant limitations exist in two or more adaptive skill areas; and the condition is present from childhood (defined as age 18 or less) (AAMR, 1992). Approximately 2.5 to 3 percent of the general population has mental retardation (The Arc, 1982). The cause of mental retardation is not always known, particularly when the level of impairment is mild. Mental retardation cuts across the lines of racial, ethnic, educational, social and economic backgrounds. It can occur in any family. One out of ten American families is directly affected by mental retardation. Mental retardation is not a disease, nor should it be confused with mental illness. Children with mental retardation become adults; they do not remain "eternal children." They do learn, but slowly, and with difficulty.

Adaptive skill areas are those daily living skills needed to live, work and play in the community. They include communication, self-care, home living, social skills, leisure, health and safety, self-direction, functional academics (reading, writing, basic math), community use and work. Adaptive skills are assessed in the person's typical environment across all aspects of an individual's life. A person with limits in intellectual functioning who does not have limits in adaptive skill areas may not be diagnosed as having mental retardation.

Tell me more about Traumatic Brain Injury

A traumatic brain injury (TBI) is an injury to the brain caused by the head being hit by something or shaken violently. This injury can change how the person acts, moves, and thinks. A traumatic brain injury can also change how a student learns and acts in school. The term TBI is not used for a person who is born with a brain injury. It also is not used for brain injuries that happen during birth.

Brain injury can cause physical, cognitive, social, and vocational changes that can affect an individual for a short period of time or permanently. More than one million children receive brain injuries each year. More than 30,000 of these children have lifelong disabilities as a result of the brain injury.

Depending on the extent and location of the brain injury, symptoms can vary widely. Some common results are seizures, loss of balance or coordination, difficulty with speech, limited concentration, memory loss, and loss of organizational and reasoning skills. A child with TBI may not have all of these difficulties. Brain injuries can range from mild to severe, and so can the changes that result from the injury. This means that it's hard to predict how an individual will recover from the injury. Early and ongoing help can make a big difference in how the child recovers. This help can include physical or occupational therapy, counseling, and special education.

It's also important to know that, as the child grows and develops, parents and teachers may notice new problems. This is because, as students grow, they are expected to use their brain in new and different ways. The damage to the brain from the earlier injury can make it hard for the student to learn new skills that come with getting older. Sometimes parents and educators may not even realize that the student's difficulty comes from the earlier injury.

Common Assistive Technology Devices used by Children with Cognitive Disabilities

A student with a traumatic brain injury or mental retardation may have trouble with almost any life skill depending on how the disability affects function. Below is a list of functional life skills. Click on the functional life skill to find more information about assistive technology tools that can help.

Other Cognitive Disability Websites

Mental Retardation

American Association on Mental Retardation

The Arc

Best Buddies

Pediatric Development and Behavior

National Information Center for Children and Youth with Disabilities - NICHCY

National Down Syndrome Congress

The Association for Persons with Severe Handicaps - TASH

Traumatic Brain Injury

Glenn Johnson TBI Guide

The Brain Injury Information Network