Learning Disabilities

A learning disability affects the way a person learns new things in any area of life, not just at school. Find out how a learning disability can affect someone, and who can offer support.

It affects the way they understand information and how they communicate. Around 1.5 million people in the UK have one. This means they can have difficulty:  

  • understanding new or complex information
  • learning new skills, and 
  • coping independently

“In practical terms,” says Lesley Campbell from the learning disability charity Mencap, “a learning disability means that it’s harder for your child to learn, understand and communicate than it is for other children.”

Mild, moderate or severe

A learning disability can be mild, moderate or severe. Some people with a mild learning disability can talk easily and look after themselves, but take a bit longer than usual to learn new skills. Others may not be able to communicate at all and have more than one disability (see Profound and multiple learning disability, below).

A learning disability is not the same as learning difficulty or mental illness. “People get confused if they start using the term ‘learning difficulty’. In education this means things like dyslexia, which is not a learning disability,” says Campbell.

“Our definition of learning disabilities focuses on people who have difficulty learning across more than one area of their life. It’s not just to do with reading or writing.”

Consultant paediatrician Dr Martin Ward Platt agrees. “It can be very confusing,” he says, pointing out that the term “learning difficulties” is used by some people to cover the whole range of learning disabilities, from children with a slightly lower IQ to those who will never be able to live on their own.

“It is easy to give the impression, by using a term like ‘learning difficulties’, that a child has less of a disability than they really do,” says Dr Ward Platt. 

Some children grow up to be quite independent, while others need help with everyday tasks, such as washing or getting dressed, for their whole lives. It depends on their abilities.

Sources of support

Some learning disabilities are diagnosed at birth, Down’s syndrome for example. Others might not be discovered until the child is old enough to talk or walk.

Once your child is diagnosed with a learning disability, your GP can refer you for any specialist support you may need. You’ll begin to get to know the team of professionals who will be involved in your child’s care.

Support from professionals including GPs, paediatricians, speech and language therapists, physiotherapists and educational and clinical psychologists is available to help individuals live as full and independent a life as possible.

What causes learning disabilities?

A learning disability happens when a person’s brain development is affected, either before they are born, during their birth or in early childhood. Several factors can affect brain development, including: 

  • the mother becoming ill in pregnancy 
  • problems during the birth that stop enough oxygen getting to the brain
  • the unborn baby developing certain genes
  • the parents passing certain genes to the unborn baby that make having a learning disability more likely (known as inherited learning disability) 
  • illness, such as meningitis, or injury in early childhood

Sometimes there is no known cause for a learning disability.

Some conditions are associated with having a learning disability, such as cerebral palsy. This is because people with these conditions are more likely to have one. Everyone with Down’s syndrome, for example, has some kind of learning disability, and so do most people with cerebral palsy. People with autism may also have learning disabilities, and around 30% of people with epilepsy have a learning disability.

Profound and multiple learning disability (PMLD)

A diagnosis of profound and multiple learning disability is used when a child has more than one disability, with the most significant being a learning disability. 

Many children diagnosed with PMLD will also have a sensory or physical disability, complex health needs or mental health difficulties. People with PMLD need a carer or carers to help them with most areas of everyday life, such as eating, washing and going to the toilet.

If you are looking after a child or adult with PMLD, you can find help and support in Carers Direct.