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Watson Life Resources

Learning and Information for Families and Educators

A comprehensive, research based resource for families and educators of individuals with disabilities.


ADA or Americans with Disabilities Act or Public Law 101-336 - Federal legislative mandate enacted to give civil rights protections to individuals with disabilities ensuring them equal opportunity through Titles I-IV that systematically addresses employment, public accommodations, transportation, state and local government services, and telecommunications. The ADA was designed to eliminate discrimination driven by stereotyping, misinformation, and personal preference. The ADA makes it unlawful to discriminate against an individual with a disability.

Adaptations - Modifications or alterations of the curriculum, the support systems, the environments, or the teaching strategies to match individual needs. The adaptations ensure that the student can participate actively and as independently as possible.

Adaptive behavior - The ability to adjust to new environments, tasks, objects, and people, and to apply new skills to those new situations.

Adaptive skills - Daily living skills including, dressing, eating, toileting, hygiene, taking care of one's needs and home, and safety skills.

Advocate - A person that knows the laws for special education and people with disabilities. An advocate supports children and families, making sure that they receive their services and civil rights.

Age appropriate - Refers to activities, classroom décor, instructional materials, and staff/student interactions similar to those of same age students without handicapping conditions; its rationale is to preserve dignity and minimize differences between individuals with and without handicaps.

Annual goal - A learning objective that has been derived from information provided on the comprehensive evaluation report. The expectation is that the annual goal will be achieved within the school year.

Antecedent behavior - An observable behavior that occurs prior to a response and is known to be associated with that behavioral response. The behavior (i.e. visible agitation, tantrums, high-pitched vocalizations) cues the staff to implement intervention from a positive behavioral support plan to redirect or to calm the student.

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) - A method of teaching designed to analyze and change behavior in a precisely measurable and accountable manner. Also called behavior modification.

Aspergers syndrome - A pervasive developmental disorder marked by obsessive interests, impaired social interactions, average to above-average intelligence, gross-motor clumsiness, and communicative deviance. Children with Asperger syndrome occupy the mild end of the autistic spectrum, with the major differential points being the absence of early language delay, the absence of mental retardation, and the presence of motor clumsiness.

Assessment - Process to determine a child's strengths and needs. Can include testing, interviews, observations, and questionnaires given by a team of professionals and parents. Usually used to determine special education needs. This term is used interchangeably with evaluation.

Assistive device - Any device or piece of equipment that aids a mentally and/or a physically challenged person to partially participate in an activity or to increase their level of independence.

Attention - The ability to concentrate on a task.

Attention span - The amount of time one is able to concentrate on a task (also called "attending" in special education jargon).

Auditory - Relating to hearing

Augmentative/alternative communication (AAC) - Temporary or permanent compensation techniques for individuals with severe expressive communication disorders. AAC interventions include symbols, aids, and strategies to enhance communication. Symbols may be gestures, photographs, manual sign systems, printed words, and spoken words. An aid is a physical object or device to assist with communication, such as a board, chart, device, or computer. Strategies are ways AAC aids are used to enhance communication, such as role playing, and classroom learning.

Autism - A developmental disablity caused by a neurological dysfunction. One of five disorders found under the umbrella name of pervasive developmental disorders. The disorder severely impairs behavior, social interactions, and language.

Autistic support - Services delivered by educational professionals to children with a diagnosis of autism; these support services are designed to maximize the social and educational potentials of the child.

Baseline - A student's current level of educational performance in a particular activity; a starting point from which to begin instructional programming.

Behavior - Observable actions and responses to the environment. These actions and responses are also influenced by internal factors such as understanding, feelings, and emotions related to the environment.

Behavior plan - A plan developed by the Individual Education Plan (IEP) team that is a positive nonaversive support for students with behavior issues. It should be a proactive plan that includes a definition of the problem behavior, why it is important to change, hypotheses regarding the problem behavior, a plan for preventing problems, a listing of alternative skills, a plan for reinforcing alternative skills, what to do when the behaviors occur, and long term prevention strategies.

Certified Occupational Therapy Assistant (COTA) - An assistant who works with a child to achieve fine motor skills. The COTA is supervised by an occupational therapist and carries out the activities prescribed by the occupational therapist to improve a child's fine motor skills.

Childhood disintegrative disorder (CDD) - A pervasive developmental disorder characterized by normal development for at least the first two years. There is a significant loss of acquired skills before age ten in the areas of language, social behavior, play, or motor. Characteristics may include impairment in social interaction and communication, and restricted repetitive behavior, interests, and activities.

Chronological age - The actual age of an individual derived from his or her date of birth. Chronological age is expressed in years, months, and days.

Cognition or cognitive skills - The ability to know and understand the environment.

Cognitive processes - The neurological process involved in knowing, thinking, reasoning, and solving problems.

Communication - An interactive process that conveys information and ideas from one person to another. Communication is a social skill that has the potential for influencing others and gaining some control over one's environment.

Community-based instruction - Instruction in which skills selected for instruction are taught in the natural environment where they normally occur. This includes teaching skills in non-classroom environments in the school building, in the actual community, in the natural home or future residence, or in potential work settings.

Comprehensive evaluation report (CER) - A document updated at least every two years that is a compilation of information concerning a student. The CER contains information concerning a student's educational, social, and physical history, their strengths and needs, and a review of the current IEP. Recommendations for the new IEP are stated. The results of the CER should reveal the nature and severity of the exceptionality, the present level of functioning, and recommendations for eligibility of services.

Confidentiality - A legal and ethical practice, where professionals may not disclose or discuss information regarding a client, student, or patient, including the diagnostic and treatment services without the express written consent of the student, client, patient, or family.

Consent - Voluntary agreement or approval for an opinion or action proposed or done by another. In an educational setting, parent/guardian consent is necessary in order for the school system to proceed with many student interventions, services, or activities.

Consequence - That which logically or naturally follows from an action or condition.

Contingency - A contract that specifies and clarifies expectations. It defines the expected behavior (work or effort) and the reinforcement (payoff). Contingencies are generally stated in an if/then or when/then format.

Criterion/Criteria - A standard rule or test on which a judgement or decision can be based; a specific, detailed explanation of how the observer will know when the student has achieved the objective; the expected level of achievement.

Cue - An auditory, visual, gestural, or physical prompting; a perceived signal for action.
See "Level of assistance."

Daily living skills - Techniques that allow an individual to perform the usual activities of daily life such as organizing belongings, grooming, and eating skills; skills a student needs to take care of his or her own personal needs as independently as possible.

Data - Measurable information collected and organized for analysis and to be used in making decisions. Two common forms of data collection are task analysis (a breaking down of specific skills into smaller steps) and mass trials (repetitive recording of an isolated task).

DSM IV Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders - (1994)The most commonly used classification system for abnormal behaviors and mental disorders.

Due process - A procedure, described in the Individuals with Disabilites Education Act of 1990, whose purpose is to settle disputes between a school system and the parents/guardians of a disabled child. A due process hearing is legal in nature, includes sworn testimony, and is presided over by a hearing officer who decides the outcome of the case based on evidence presented by each side. The decision of the hearing officer is binding. If the school system or parents/guardians disagree with the decision of the hearing officer, they may appeal to the state or federal court. Due process hearings may be requested by a school system or a family/guardian.
Due process should be considered only after every effort has been made on the part of each of the parties, families, and school districts to resolve contested issues in an objective, fair, and informal manner.

Echolalia - The repetition of speech produced by others. The echoed words or phrases can include the same words and exact inflections as originally heard or they may be slightly modified. Immediate echolalia refers to echoed words spoken immediately or a very brief time after they were heard. Delayed echolalia refers to echoed "tapes" that are repeated at a much later time - days or even years later.

Ecological inventory - An analysis of the home and community environments that are important to the individual and the skills necessary for them to participate in a specific task or activity within that environment.

Educational team - Refers to a multidisciplinary team composed of a parent, teacher, education supervisor and LEA (Local Education Agency) representative, and, as needed, a communication therapist, an occupational therapist, a physical therapist, and/or a behavior specialist who make team decisions to best develop and implement a student's educational objectives.

Eligibility - The process of a team deciding if an individual meets the criterion for special education. The child must have one or more of the following: autism/pervasive developmental disorder, serious emotional disturbance, neurological impairment, deafness/hearing impairment, specific learning disability, mental retardation, multihandicap, other health impairment, physical disability, speech and language impairment, or blindness/visual impairment.

Embedded skills - Skills taught through specific activities when the natural opportunities arise.

Emotional Support - Services delivered by educational professionals to children who are identified as needing assistance in emotional and behavioral development.

Engagement - The ability to remain focused and interactive with (or responsive to) a person or object.

Etiology - The study of the cause of disease.

Exceptionality - Persons who demonstrate learning and behavior disorders, speech and language disorders, sensory disorders, physical, and other health disorders are identified for service due to their exceptionality.

Exit criteria - The set of conditions under which a student may leave an educational system or program. The IEP (Individualized Education Program) team addresses a student's Exit Criteria at the annual IEP meeting.

Expressive language - The ability to use gestures, words, and written symbols to communicate.

Extended school year (ESY) - A special education student is entitled to an educational program in excess of 180 days if they experience a significant regression and inability to recoup skills to previous levels after a six week instructional period.

Extinction - The process of discontinuing reinforcement to reduce a response.

Fine motor skills - A child's ability to use the small muscles of the hands in order to do activities such as writing, cutting, dressing, pinching, grasping, and manipulating hands for eating.

Forms of communication - The means or method of communication - gestures, pictures, signs, spoken or written words, and other methods.

Fragile X syndrome - A genetic condition in which one part of the X chromosome has a defect. The condition causes mental retardation. It has also been reported with learning disabilities, autism, speech and language disorders, and mathematics and motor disabilities.

Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) - A provision of federal law which provides students who are eligible for special education with schooling as indicated on an Individualized Educational Program at no cost to parents. FAPE was first implemented in 1979 in the United States.

Functional assessment - A process for documenting an individual's actual ability to function in the natural environment.

Functional goals - Goals that lead directly to increased independence in the real world, such as cooking, doing laundry, managing a bank account, or leisure time. Non-functional goals, such as cutting with scissors on a line and walking a balance beam, have no direct relevance to increased independence.

Functions of behavior - A phrase used to denote the possible cause of a problem behavior. The function or cause of the behavior may be due to communication frustration, sensory issues, confusion, boredom, task avoidance, need for attention, unrealistic expectations, or a need for things to remain the same.

Functions of communication - The purpose or reasons to communicate; for example: to request, protest, or comment.

Generalize, generalization - Terms used to describe the ability to learn a skill or a rule in one situation and be able to use or apply it flexibly to other similar but different situations. The term overgeneralize refers to the tendency of those with autism to use a skill in all settings just as it was taught without modifications that reflect the differences in a situation.

Genetic - A trait inherited from one or both parents.

Goals - What a student is going to learn during the school year. The IEP lists the goals. Each goal describes the behavior the child will learn. Goals are observable and measurable. Each goal has objectives or steps that are taken to learn the new behavior.

Graduated guidance - Systematically and gradually reducing the amount of physical guidance used.

Gross motor - Relating to the use of the large muscles of the body.

Hierarchy of prompts - A term used to define the level of prompts or assistance given to an individual. When the term "hierarchy" is used, it is specifying the order of the level from most assistance to minimal.

High functioning individuals with autism - People with Asperger Syndrome are often referred to as "high functioning individuals with autism."

Hyperactivity - A specific nervous system based difficulty, which makes it hard for a person to control muscle (motor) behavior.

Hyperlexia - The ability to learn to read at advanced levels without instruction.

Identification - The determination that a child should be evaluated as a possible candidate for special education services.

Inclusive education - An educational model in which students with disabilities receive their education in a general educational setting with collaboration between general and special education teachers.

Individual with Disabilities Act or Public law 101-476 (IDEA) - A federal law passed in 1991 that reauthorized and changed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (PL 94-142). IDEA makes sure that children with disabilities and their parents or guardians are given access to a free and appropriate public education. IDEA was reauthorized again in July 1997. The law's name reflects a change in terminology; PL 101-476 employs a "people-first" language, replacing "handicapped children" with "individuals with disabilities."

Individualized Education Program (IEP) - A program written and developed by families and professionals (IEP Team). The IEP details the specific program and services a child will receive. IEPs are implemented to provide specially-designed instruction for children with disabilities; eligible children may have IEPs from three years old until they are 21.

Input - Information that a person receives through any of the senses (vision, hearing, touch, taste, and smell) that helps that person develop new skills.

Insistence on sameness - A tendency in many people with autism to become upset when familiar routines are changed.

Instructional program - Instruction which is developed from the IEP to include objectives, specified conditions, observable and measurable behavior, and mastery criteria.

Intervention - Planned strategies and activities that modify a maladaptive behavior or state of being and facilitate growth and change.

- When a child and adult coordinate their attention about an object of mutual interest. This involves shifting their attention from each other to an object and back.

LEA - Local Education Agency.

Learning style - A manner or way of taking in and processing information in order to learn, to think, to remember, and to function in the world.

Learning Support - Services delivered by educational professionals to children whose main need is academic; learning support focuses on skills related to becoming an active learner.

Least restrictive environment - A legal term from Part B of the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) that expresses that children with disabilities must be educated to the maximum extent appropriate with children who are not disabled.

Level of assistance - A combination of verbal, visual, gestural, and physical prompts/cues that are specific to each student's learning needs.

Levels of intervention - The spectrum of special education supports available. These range from least to most restrictive learning environments.

Life Skills Support - Services delivered by educational professionals to children who are identified as needing assistance with independent living skills. The focus of life skills support services is teaching students the skills necessary to become as independent as possible.

Mediation - A voluntary procedure that families and school administrators may use to work out disagreements. It is free and does not affect a family's ability to use the due process procedures.

Motor - Relating to the ability to move oneself.

Motor planning - The ability to think through and carry out a physical task.

Multi Disciplinary Team (MDT) - The team that includes family members, teachers, school administrators, therapists, and anyone else that is invited to be a member. The MDT performs the child's assessment (MDE), is responsible for writing the assessment report (CER), and for determining appropriate services.

Multidisciplinary evaluation (MDE) - The process of gathering information about a child to determine eligibility for special education services. Information is gathered using different methods, such as observations, tests, and interviews. The information is gathered by professionals with assistance from families. The results of the MDE are written in the CER.

Natural cue - An object or event that is always present or always occurs as part of the natural environment that triggers a response or action. For example, a full laundry basket is a signal that it is time to do the laundry.

Natural prompt - Something that calls attention to a missed cue or that assures a correct response If a person in line does not move up, the person behind says, "Hey, move along."

Norm referenced - Formal tests which measure and compare performance to a sample. Some purposes are to determine developmental levels, mental age, or intelligent quotients. Norm referenced tests are typically not suitable for students with significant disabilities.

Notice of Recommended Assignment (NORA) - A legal contract that lists your child's recommended placement, explains a family's rights to agree or disagree with the placement decisions, and details how to use the due process and appear procedures. This contract is signed by the parent or guardian after a child's IEP, when a child transitions, and when a change in placement is decided upon by the team.

Objectives - The smaller steps or skills the child needs to learn before she/she can accomplish a goal. Objectives must be observable and measurable in order to know when the child has achieved them. The team must state how each objective will be measured or know if it has been achieved, as well as how often they will need to evaluate it.

Occupational therapy (OT) - Services that help the child develop fine motor skills needed for daily living and academic success.

Partial participation - All students participate in an activity to their maximum potential regardless of the ability level.

Perseveration - The repetition of a word, thought, or action without the ability to stop or move on. For example, when a person steps through the door, then rocks back and forth, unable to follow through with the other foot; or, when one erases a mistake until the paper is worn through.

Pervasive developmental disorder (PDD) - A defined category of disability that involves problems in social interaction and verbal and nonverbal communication. PDD includes autism, childhood disintegrative disorder, Rett Syndrome, Asperger's syndrome, and PDD-not otherwise specified as diagnostic entities. PDD not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS) refers to children who have autistic symptoms but do not formally qualify for that diagnosis.

Physical therapy (PT) - A prescribed set of activities designed to develop children's large muscles and gross motor skills.

Picture exchange communication system (PECS) - A communication system developed by the Delaware Autistic Program. This system utilizes pictures to facilitate communication and emphasizes independence for child initiation of communication. It emphasizes handing a picture rather than pointing for communicating.

Placement - The selection of the educational program for a child who needs special education programs.

Pragmatics - The practical aspects of using language to communicate in a natural context. It includes the rules about eye contact between speaker and listener, how close to stand, taking turns, selecting topics of conversation, and other requirements to ensure that communication occurs. Many of these rules have a cultural basis.

Present level of performance - Information that includes the student's strengths, needs, and instructional level.

Procedural safeguards - Special procedures designed by law to protect the rights of children and parents, which include due process, nondiscriminatory testing, least restrictive environment, native language considerations, and confidentiality.

Prompt - Input that encourages a child to perform a movement or activity. See "cue."

Proprioceptive - Stimuli from the nerve receptors located in the muscles, tendons, and inner ear that provide a sense of the position of one's body in space.

Punishment - An unpleasant event that occurs as a direct consequence of a behavior which decreases the strength of the behavior or the likelihood that it will be repeated. There are pitfalls to this approach. Punishment has a short-term, rather than long-term, effect when appropriate behaviors are not taught or reinforced at the same time. If punishment occurs frequently and across enough school settings, the student will come to view the whole school experience as aversive. Children with certain disabilities may not clearly link cause and effect; therefore, punishment is confusing and is unlikely to prevent another incident.

Receptive language - The ability to understand spoken and written communication as well as gestures.

Recoupment - A process that refers to the recovery of skills to previous levels before interruption in the student's program.

Regression - A significant decrease in performance of a skill after an interruption in the student's program.

Reinforcement - Providing strengthening consequences that, when given immediately following a desired response, increases the likelihood that the behavior will occur again.

Related services - Services that enable a child to benefit from special education. Related services include speech, occupational, and physical therapies, as well as transportation.

Respite care - Skilled adult- or child-care and supervision that can be provided in the home or the home of a care-provider. Respite care may be available for several hours per week or for overnight stays.

Response - An action or behavior that is triggered by a preceding cue or stimulus (object, action, or event).

Response cost - A type of punishing procedure that involves the loss of something valued (a reinforcer) as a direct result of an action (behavior), thus decreasing the likelihood that the behavior will reoccur. Response cost involves the giving up of something already in possession; it is not simply that reinforcement is withheld. (A child who draws on the wall must give up crayons; a person caught speeding must give up money).

Retts syndrome - A degenerative condition that occurs in girls, typically developing early and then, between 6 and 18 months of age, undergo a rapid regression in motor, cognitive, and social skills that eventually stabilizes at a level that leaves the individual with mental retardation. Affected individuals later exhibit autistic features and hand stereotypies: wringing, clapping, tapping, washing, and mouthing.

Role release - A process in which team members support each other and share responsibilities to reinforce therapy and instructional interventions.

Scheduling - A planning process that organizes a sequence of events to achieve a goal. A schedule is the product of that planning process. A schedule can be a visual representation with words, pictures, symbols, or objects.

SEA - The State Education Agency.

Self-contained - Full time special education class in regular education school (outside of regular education classroom for majority of school day; sometimes referred to as self-contained classrooms). One of the levels of intervention for special education.

Self-help - The ability to take care of oneself, through such skills as eating, dressing, bathing, and cleaning.

Semantic categories - The type of meaning a word has when used to communicate an idea or concept. An example of the category "object wanted" is, "Want ball." An example of the category "action" is, "I jumped."

Sensory ability - The ability to process sensations, such as touch, sound, light, smell, and movement.

Sensory channels - The pathways for receiving information from the environment (for example, eyes: visual channel; ears: auditory channel; nose: olfactory channel).

Sensory integration - The neurological process that organizes sensation from one's own body and from the environment and enables one to use the body effectively in the environment.

Social cognition - The thinking, understanding, and reasoning skills involved in or required for social interactions; knowing about others and their perspectives.

Social skills - Appropriate behaviors necessary for living and interacting with others.

Social skills training - Specific training in the skills necessary for successful peer interaction. Learning and attention disorders may hinder the development of social as well as academic skills. These limitations are being addressed in textbooks and through the development of commercially available social skills curricula.

Social stimuli - The sensory stimulation provided by people and interactions. The amount and the type of stimulation presented by people is highly unpredictable. The stimulation includes expressive and changing facial features (especially the eyes and mouth), loud and often high-pitched talking, odors, unexpected movements, and touches.

Social story - A story written by parents or professionals to describe social situations that are difficult and/or confusing for children with autism. Each story identifies and describes relevant social cues and desired responses to a target situation and is written with consideration of a child's abilities and learning style. A systematic approach to social stories was developed by Carol Gray.

Specially designed instruction (SDI) - Refers to the special methods, equipment, materials, and adaptations that are needed for a student to be successful in school and achieve IEP goals. This is written on the IEP and tells everyone who works with the child how to help him/her to learn.

Speech and language therapy - A service for children having difficulty saying sounds and using and understanding language skills. It can help children to say sound correctly, understand what others say to them, and improve their ability to use spoken words. It is also used to assist those children who communicate through means other than verbal speech (sign language, pictures, augmentative devices, etc.).

Staff development - Activities that assist educational staff in improving their skills.

Standardized tests - Assessment tools that measure one individual's performance against the performance of many other individuals who have taken the test under the same precise conditions. Standardized tests involve highly specific directions and provide age/grade-level or intelligence (IQ) scores.

Stereotypic behavior - Constantly repeated meaningless gestures or movements such as hand flapping. Stereotypy is common in autism and in self-stimulatory behaviors seen in individuals with severe mental retardation.

Stimulus - A physical object or environmental event that may have an effect upon the behavior of a person. Some stimuli are internal (earache pain), while others are external (a smile from a loved one).

Structured teaching - An intervention method that emphasizes visual supports for children and adults.

Support systems - The adaptations and assistance required to ensure increasing independence. One learner's support system may include a daily calendar, transition cues, a 1:1 interpreter for some classes, and a consulting occupational therapist.

Syndrome - A condition characterized by a cluster of co-occurring symptoms that has a specific effect on a group of individuals; for example, fetal alcohol syndrome, Down syndrome, autism.

Tactile - Relating to touch.

Tactile defensiveness - Tactile hypersensitivity; a sensory integrative dysfunction characterized by observable aversive or negative behavioral responses to certain types of touch that most people would find not painful. Strong emotional reactions, hyperactivity, and other behavior problems may occur.

TEACCH - Treatment and Education for Autistic and Communication Related Disordered Children. This intervention method emphasizes visual supports for children and adults with autism. The program originates from North Carolina. The main premise of TEACCH is to adapt the environment for the person with autism.

Therapy (direct, consult) - Refers to treatment (direct or consult) delivered by a licensed communication therapist, occupational therapist, physical therapist, or adaptations to the environment that will improve a student's performance.

Total communication - A method of communication for individuals in which all modalities are utilized. Techniques such as oral and traditional orthography (writing), sign language, gestures, and augmentative communication are used to enhance expressive and receptive language skills.

Transition - process of moving from one educational program to another, such as from school to the workplace. Transitions are changes in an established routine. Transitions need to be well planned to avoid anxiety for children and families and lessen the chance for unsuitable placements.

Transition cue - An object that serves as a reminder of the targeted destination. A 3" x 5" card with a drawing of the gym serves as a reminder to continue moving to the gym.

Vestibular - Pertaining to the sensory system located in the inner ear that allows that body to maintain balance and enjoy participating in movement such as swinging and roughhousing.

Visual adaptations/visual support systems - Written schedules, lists, charts, picture sequences, and other visuals that convey meaningful information in a permanent format for later reference. Visual adaptations allow the person with autism to function more independently without constant verbal directions. These visual adaptations serve the same purpose for those with autism as a hearing aid and sign language serge for the person who is deaf. A person who is blind gets information from reading Braille or from an interpreter.

Visual motor - The skill required to carry out a task such as putting a puzzle piece into a puzzle or a key into a keyhole.

Vocational training - Training for a job; learning skills to perform in the workplace.

Work system - The visual organization of directions, materials, and environments to clarify expectations. This clear visual organization promotes independence from another person providing verbal cues and prompts.