Students with Low-Incidence Exceptionalities: Types & Assessments

Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson we explore students with low-incidence exceptionalities, common characteristics across the disorder spectrum, and discuss several of the more common types and common approaches to education of students with these disorders.


As many parents know, just wrangling two or three kids can be a monumental task, but what about reining in 20 or 30? Teaching a classroom full of students can sometimes require a herculean effort. Teachers have to ensure their students are not just under control but, most importantly, learning the material.

This task can be complicated when dealing with students with physical or developmental disabilities. In this lesson, we will explore several of the more acute disabilities students can have, often known as low-incidence exceptionalities.


Low-incidence exceptionalities are severe mental or physical disabilities that students often have from birth. Their characteristics, causes, and symptoms are caused by complications during pregnancy, genetic disorders, or mutations. Most students who have these disorders require exceptional help through the course of their education as they are physically, intellectually, and behaviorally limited.

Most of these students require an individual education plan (IEP), developed together by teachers, parents, and school administrators. Some may require a personal support worker on hand at all times. Depending on the student's condition, some students may only require some extra physical help. Many of these will, in time and with appropriate instruction, attain a certain level of academic skill. Others, however, require education plans that aim to help them gain the skills to function in society.

The level of help each student requires depends on the type and severity of their condition. Below are several of the more common low-incidence exceptionalities.

Spina Bifida

Spina bifida is a nervous system disorder that occurs during the early stages of pregnancy. The spinal column, which protects the spinal cord, fails to develop properly in the first weeks of the fetus' growth. Though the spinal column is often repaired by operation shortly after birth, the nerve damage has lifelong effects.

The severity of a student's spina bifida will dictate just how much help they need, but most afflicted students will need some form of assistance. The nerve damage caused by spina bifida often causes severe physical disabilities or even deformation. It can also cause mental issues; spina bifida often causes a student's cerebellum to have stunted growth, limiting many functions. Students with spina bifida should have an individual IEP tailored to meet their particular mental or physical difficulties.

Cerebral Palsy

Often originating during prenatal development, Cerebral palsy is caused by a brain injury. Children who are born premature are at a higher risk for cerebral palsy, and some cases are the result of a decreased oxygen flow to the brain. As with spina bifida, the severity of cerebral palsy varies greatly.

Students with cerebral palsy have limited physical development. Depending on the injury, some have only a few parts of their body affected, like one leg or both arms. Students with cerebral palsy often suffer from uncontrollable muscle spasms, seizures, or a general muscle weakness. Many students with cerebral palsy simply require more time to accommodate their limited movement, though more serious cases may require additional accommodations.

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome is perhaps the most unfortunate of all these disorders. Unlike the other disorders we discuss here, it can be entirely avoided. Fetal alcohol syndrome is caused when a woman drinks alcohol during her pregnancy. Symptoms of the disorder vary greatly; the effects of alcohol during pregnancy affect each fetus differently. Most commonly, students with fetal alcohol syndrome have their hearing, vision, memory, or attention span affected.

Each student with fetal alcohol syndrome should be approached as a unique case. Teachers, therapists, and school administrators should assess a student's difficulties - be they physical or mental. The student's specific needs determine the form an IEP may take.

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