Quick guide to learning disabilities

This handout was provided by Tandy H.


What is a learning disability?

A learning disability is a lifelong condition which is not an illness or a disease. There are many possible causes for a learning disability, including medical problems before birth, a difficult birth or a serious illness during early childhood. Learning disability is also associated with different syndromes caused by genetic factors. The most common such syndrome is Down’s Syndrome. Other such syndromes include Fragile X, Prader-Willi Syndrome and Rett Syndrome.

A learning disability is not a mental health problem; neither do less profound learning difficulties like dyslexia constitute a learning disability.

For some people with a learning difficulty it’s not possible to determine the cause of their condition. They often have a non specific diagnosis such as “global developmental delay.”

A learning disability affects a person’s intellectual functioning and sometimes their physical development. It usually has a significant impact on a person’s life, affecting many areas of their development.

People with a learning disability find it harder than others to learn, understand and communicate, so they will need more time and support to learn new skills. The extent to which a person is affected by their learning disability varies, from mild disabilities to much more severe impairments. People with profound and multiple learning disabilities (PMLD) need full-time help with every aspect of their lives, including eating, drinking, washing, dressing and toileting.

As well as difficulties with communication, cognitive and self help skills, people with learning disabilities sometimes find it hard to be flexible and like to stick to routines or interests that they are very familiar with. If you imagine having difficulty processing information about the world around you, difficulty in communicating and additional difficulties in manipulating objects or moving around, it’s easy to see why you might stick to activities you liked or places you felt secure. The challenges people with learning disabilities face also mean that sometimes it’s hard for them to behave in a socially acceptable way and they may need support in this area.

It’s important to remember that people with learning disabilities are people first, with their distinct personalities, interests, skills and abilities. With the right support and opportunities, people with learning disabilities can build on their strengths, learn new skills and lead fulfilled lives.

Support for people with learning disabilities.

Children with learning disabilities often benefit from therapies such as speech therapy, music therapy, physiotherapy and occupational therapy. At school they will need personalised learning plans where learning is broken down into small steps. Supporting children to develop their communication skills is crucial. This may involve using alternative or augmentative forms of communication, such as signing, picture symbols, switches or computers.

As they grow up people with learning disabilities should have access to a range of further education and training courses, so that they can move into appropriate employment of their choice. The level of support a person with a learning disability will need in adult life will depend on the nature of their disability and to what extent they are affected by their disability.

Additonal statistics from The Foundation for People with L. Disabilities website (accessed 19.02.2010):

About 2% of the population have a learning disability.

About 60% of adults with a learning disability live with their families.

17% of people with learning disabilities of working age have a job.

Almost one in three people with a learning disability say they do not have any contact with friends.

Associated Conditions

Cerebral palsy

Cerebral palsy is not a learning disability, but many people with cerebral palsy also have a learning disability. It is a physical condition that affects the person’s movement and control of their body, caused by a part of the brain that has not developed properly either before birth or during early childhood. There are several different types of cerebral palsy, depending on which parts of the brain have been damaged. Some people are severely affected, while in others it is barely noticeable.


Epilepsy is one of the most common conditions affecting the brain. It is not a learning disability but, according to Mencap statistics, 30% of people with a learning disability also have epilepsy. People with epilepsy have seizures when the way their brain works becomes disrupted. Most seizures are sudden and short-lived, lasting a matter of seconds or minutes, and aren’t dangerous to the person having them.

Autism and Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASD)

Autism is a developmental disorder resulting in:
· Impaired social development
· Impaired language and communication
· Rigidity of thought and behavior
(Wing’s Triad of Impairments in Autism)
The condition is described as a “spectrum” as people can be mildly autistic or extremely affected by the condition. The National Autistic Society suggests that autistic spectrum disorder touches the lives of some 500,000 families in the UK.

Autism is a lifelong disability that affects the way a person communicates and relates to people and the world around them. Although autism is not a learning disability, people with autism often have some degree of learning disability, ranging from mild to severe.
People with autism may have difficulty with:
· forming relationships with other people, developing appropriate social skills, making friends.
· developing speech, understanding non-verbal communication such as eye contact, gesture, body language and facial expressions.
· developing empathy, imaginative play and flexibility in terms of interests and routines.

Asperger’s syndrome

Asperger’s syndrome is regarded as part of the autistic spectrum. People with the condition experience difficulties in the three key areas outlined above but do not have an intellectual impairment. They may excel in some areas of learning such as maths and information technology. However, because of the difficulties people with Aspergers Syndrome experience in the areas of social communication, social skills and flexibility, they often find learning, particularly in group settings, challenging and stressful, and may find coping independently difficult in later life.

Further Information

It is impossible to provide detailed information on individual learning disabilities in an introductory sheet! However, there are support organisations for most conditions, which provide information online, in booklet form or via phone help lines. The easiest thing to do is to “google” the condition you are interested in.

Useful Websites:

Mencap www.mencap.org.uk
Foundation for People with Learning Disabilities www.leaningdisabilities.org.uk
Valuing People Now (Government Strategy for people with learning disabilities) www.valuingpeoplenow.dh.gov.uk
Circles Network (Developing support networks for people with learning disabilities) www.circlesnetwork.org.uk
People First (Self Advocacy) www.peoplefirstltd.com
BILD www.bild.org.uk (British Institute of Learning Disability)
The Down’s Syndrome Association www.downs-syndrome.org.uk
SCOPE www.scope.org.uk (‘About Cerebral Palsy’)
National Autistic Society www.nas.org.uk
Unique www.rarechromo.org (Support & Information for people who have a rare chromosomal disorder.)
Bibic www.bibic.org.uk (Britsish Institute for Brain Injured Children)
Cerebra www.cerebra.org.uk (Supports brain injured children & young people.)
Sesame Street Autism Resources http://autism.sesamestreet.org/
Reduce the Noise: Help Loved Ones with Sensory Overload https://www.retailmenot.com/blog/sensory-overload-while-shopping.html
Resources for Military Families http://www.militaryfamily.org/info-resources/efmp-special-needs.html
Going to the Orthodontist with CFS http://www.tlortho.com/trip-orthodontist-chronic-fatigue-syndrome-resour…
Academic Accommodation Resources http://www.washington.edu/doit/academic-accommodations-students-learning…
Estate Planning for Parents of SEN children https://www.justgreatlawyers.com/estate-planning-for-parents-of-children…