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What is Brain Injury

Medically, brain injury refers to any kind of injury to the brain. There are two overarching types of brain injury.  This article offers information on both types, effects of brain injury, and brain injury and special education.

Brain injury can result from a variety of acquired causes, including poisoning, lack of oxygen, a tumor, a stroke, or infection. Such an injury can occur before or during birth. The most frequent cause of brain injury, however is Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). Traumatic Brain Injury results from an external physical force.

There are different types of traumatic brain injury. Brain injuries are classified as closed or open. A Closed Head Injury (CHI) means that the skull is intact. An example is a car accident or a child being shaken. Open means that the skull has been penetrated. An example is a gunshot wound in the head. Mild Traumatic Brain Injury (MTBI), Post-Concussion Syndrome (PCS) and other more serious injuries may result from trauma to the brain

Terminology Issues When Speaking of Brain Injury

Although the terms are used distinctly by some people (acquired is used to mean everything that is not the result of trauma) Acquired Brain Injury and Traumatic Brain Injury are sometimes used interchangeably, and the injury may also be characterized as a head injury or simply a brain injury. This can cause enormous confusion, so if you have occasion to discuss this issue, choose your words carefully, and ask others how they define their terms.

For the purposes of clarity in this article, we will not use the terms synonymously, but will specify whether we are referring to all brain injuries or exclusively to those that are or  are not traumatic.

Effects of Brain Injury

Brain injury may result in various deficits, whatever the cause. A person who suffers a brain injury may suffer cognitive, emotional, physical, and psychological changes. Communication, memory, perception, and the ability to think may all be affected. The person may experience mood swings, headaches, and coordination problems. He or she may have trouble paying attention and learning. Because brain injuries can affect learning, they are an important topic in education.

Brain Injury and Special Education

Children who have sustained a brain injury may often benefit from special education. An analysis of the criteria for receiving special education shows that the special education law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) handles non-traumatic brain injury differently than it does Traumatic Brain Injury. This is how it works:

• Traumatic Brain Injury is listed as one of the 13 disability categories which qualify children age 3-21 for special services under IDEA.

The law gives a specific definition of Traumatic Brain Injury (34 Code of Federal Regulations §300.7(c)(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 include brain injuries that are congenital or degenerative, or brain injuries induced by birth trauma.”

You can see that acquired is being used here synonymously with traumatic and that congenital or degenerative brain injuries are being excluded. What about those?

Brain injuries that are not traumatic do not have their own separate listing. But they are not left out: they are simply handled in a different way. Among the 13 qualifiying conditions, there are listings for:

  • emotional disturbance
  • orthopedic impairment
  • other health impairment
  • speech or language impairment
  • specific learning disability

Thus, the child who has a brain injury that is not traumatic is eligible based not on the incidence of a brain injury, but on the specific results for that child in terms of areas that can affect his or her learning.

Written by Mary Elizabeth.

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