The first university-based entities for individuals with developmental disabilities were authorized in Title 1, Part B of Public Law 88-164. This Act was signed into law on October 31, 1963, by President John F. Kennedy, just 22 days before he was assassinated. The signing of Public Law 88-164, along with Public Law 88-156 signed seven says earlier, represented the initial legislation intended to implement the recommendations of the President's Panel on Mental Retardation.

Prior to signing this act, President Kennedy created the first President's Panel on Mental Retardation. The President's Panel authored a report that was among the most comprehensive, multifaceted, and well researched documents in the disability field of the time. The concept of these university-based facilities for people with developmental disabilities came from the recommendations addressed in the Panel's report. The concept of additional support for higher education in the field of disabilities was stimulated by the possibility of federal funds for campus facilities to conduct research and provide training and clinical services.

Currently, AUCD represents 67 University Centers for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities (UCEDD), funded by the Administration on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (AIDD), across the country with at least one center in every state and territory in the U.S. Each UCEDD is affiliated with a major research university. AUCD also has as its members 43 Maternal and Child Health (MCH)-established Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental and Related Disabilities (LEND) programs which train graduate level professionals for positions of interdisciplinary leadership, and 15 Eunice Kennedy Shriver Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Centers (IDDRC) which work to prevent and treat disabilities through biomedical and behavioral research.