Students with significant cognitive disabilities cannot be identified by looking at disability categorical labels that were identified by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Generally, the primary disability categories of many students with significant cognitive disabilities are intellectual disabilities, autism, and multiple disabilities. Not all students in any of these categories have significant cognitive disabilities. Additionally, some students with significant cognitive disabilities are in other categories such as deaf-blindness.

Most students with significant cognitive disabilities participate in the alternate assessment based on alternate academic achievement standards (AA-AAS). States’ AA-AAS guidelines are fairly consistent in their criteria for participation in the AA-AAS:

  • Student has a significant cognitive disability and significant delays in adaptive behavior.
  • Student requires intensive and extensive individualized instruction and substantial supports to access the curriculum.
  • Student is taught using a curriculum modified to meet individual needs related to the student’s disability.

Data on the settings in which students with significant disabilities are educated reflect the restrictiveness of the educational settings for many of these students. For example, one study found that in 2011, 71% of students who participated in their states’ alternate assessments were in self-contained special education classrooms. Only 4% were in resource rooms, and only 3% were in general education classrooms. According to the U.S. Department of Education, students with significant cognitive disabilities in the categories of autism, intellectual disability, multiple disabilities, and deaf-blindness are most likely to be placed in a separate setting (with less than 40% of the day in the general education setting).