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Learning Disability

Everything you need to know about living well with a learning disability

  • Introduction
  • Types
  • Symptoms
  • Daily Living
  • Support
  • Glossary


This guide may be useful to you if you have a learning disability or know a child or adult with a learning disability.

If you are wondering, ‘what is learning disability?’, this guide may help. Here, we explore what causes learning disability, what symptoms and signs of learning disability there are, and about living with learning disability. Remember, you are not alone, and there are many sources of support available to you, your child and your family. If you are concerned about any of the symptoms or information you read here, please consult your GP.


What is learning disability?

‘Learning disability’ is an umbrella term for lots of different conditions. It is a brain condition, not a disease, and affects a person’s intellectual ability. A person with a learning disability is likely to find learning skills difficult and have some developmental delays. They may find understanding information and the world around them, more difficult than other people.

Symptoms of learning disability are really varied, but may involve taking longer to learn certain skills. Some people may have problems with particular areas, for example, with communication, reading, writing or understanding instructions.

Learning disability is not a mental illness. It is also different to having difficulties with learning, for example, dyslexia. A person with a learning disability will live with their condition throughout their life – it is not curable. Having a learning disability is likely to affect a person’s life to some degree, but there are different levels of severity. Many people live well with a learning disability.

There are around one and a half million people with a learning disability diagnosis in the UK, but it is suspected that many more live with some level of learning disability and are unaware of it – or are undiagnosed. Around 200 children are born with a learning disability in the UK every week. Males are slightly more likely to have a learning disability than females. The age of learning disability diagnosis differs drastically, with some people being diagnosed in childhood and others not until late adulthood.

To understand more about learning disability, view this video.

What causes learning disability

Learning disability occurs due to the brain not developing as it is supposed to. This sometimes happens before a baby is born, during birth, or as a young baby. For example, if a baby is deprived of oxygen during their birth, or is very premature, their brain may not develop properly which may lead to learning disability.

Genetics may also play a part, but this is not yet clear.

In some cases, it is impossible for specialists to confirm what causes learning disability.

Sometimes, learning disability is a symptom of other conditions, for example cerebral palsy, Down’s syndrome or epilepsy.

For more information on what causes learning disability visit the NHS website.

Did you know... "Learning disability causes a lower than average IQ and difficulty learning skills, for example, it may affect a person’s ability to communicate, read, write or understand complex ideas."

Symptoms of Learning Disability

Here we cover learning disability symptoms that may be seen in children or adults.

Symptoms of learning disability vary greatly and should be considered behaviours, characteristics or difficulties rather than symptoms. Everyone with a learning disability will experience it in a different way, and there are different levels, or types, of learning disability.

Learning disability causes a person to have difficulties with learning skills and processing information, but the impact of learning disability changes through time. It is possible that with the right learning disability help and support, a person is able to learn and develop new skills and abilities, but may come across different challenges as they get older. For example, a toddler with a learning disability may learn to talk, but take longer than their peers and as he or she grows up, they may have other learning disability symptoms.


If you are concerned that your child is displaying symptoms of learning disability that we discuss below, please consult your GP. These are not necessarily signs of learning disability and lots of children develop at different rates.

Possible learning disability symptoms and characteristics include:

Babies and toddlers:

o Feeding difficulties

o Delays in ability to sit, stand, crawl, walk

o Slower than usual language development


o Reading and writing difficulties

o Problems with maths

o Being slow to learn new things

o Difficulty understanding information

o Difficulty following instructions


o Finding concepts such as time and direction difficult to understand

o Memory problems

o Communication problems e.g. small vocabulary, speaking slowly

o Finding it difficult to understand and follow conversation

o Finding it difficult to understand consequences

o Coordination problems

Not everybody will have all of these learning disability symptoms – some people may have one or two, others may have several. Everyone will display different characteristics and find different aspects of learning challenging.

Diagnosis of learning disability

If you are concerned that you or your child or even an adult in your life, may show signs of learning disability, it may help to discuss these with a GP. You may feel that a diagnosis of learning disability may be a hindrance to your child, but it actually means they are more likely to get the learning disability support they need, for example, through their education. A learning disability diagnosis can also help understand any issues and challenges, in order to find solutions for them.

The process of learning disability diagnosis can take some time. Parents, teachers and health visitors may all suspect that a child could have a learning disability. If you are concerned about your child, speak to your GP or health visitor in the first instance. Many health and social care professionals may be involved in the diagnostic process.

MENCAP provides a wealth of information about learning disability diagnosis.

Did you know... "People with a learning disability will all be affected differently – some will have mild disability and others will find everyday tasks more challenging."

Types of Learning Disability

Here, we talk briefly about the types of learning disability.

Learning disability types are described in levels of severity, and determined by how much a person’s intellectual ability is affected. These levels range from mild to severe. The type of learning disability a person has will have an impact on how their learning, abilities and daily life is affected. The more severe the learning disability is, the more support a person will require in lots of aspects of daily life.


There are also various conditions that cause learning disability, or which learning disability is a symptom of and likely to occur alongside, which we cover briefly below.

Types of learning disability include:

• Mild learning disability

• Moderate learning disability

• Severe learning disability

• Profound and multiple learning disabilities

It may be difficult to tell if someone has a mild learning disability, as they may simply have some minor difficulties with speech, writing, etc. On the other hand, someone with severe or profound learning disabilities may need support in lots of areas of daily life. It is important to treat each person as an individual, with their own abilities, and to focus on what they can do or where they need help.

The following conditions often include some type of learning disability:

Down’s syndrome – caused by a chromosomal abnormality, this may lead to delays in development and some varied level of learning disability

Williams syndrome – rare in the UK, and caused by genes, this leads to delays in movement, communication and social skills. For more information on this condition, visit the Williams Syndrome Foundation website

Autism – a common condition that causes a person to see and experience the world differently, which may occur alongside learning disability in some people. For more information on autism, visit the National Autistic Society website

Asperger syndrome – a milder form of autism, which affects communication, learning and social skills and which sometimes involves learning disability. For more information on Asperger syndrome, visit the Asperger’s Syndrome Foundation website

Fragile X syndrome – a rare condition that is caused by genetic mutation, which causes autistic-like symptoms and learning disability, the latter being most common in boys with the condition. For more information, visit the Fragile X Society website

Cerebral palsy – a condition caused by brain injury during or soon after birth, which sometimes causes learning disability as well as physical disability. For more information on cerebral palsy, visit the Scope website

Did you know... "People with learning disability are able to do lots of things – many can read, write, do maths, talk, socialise, work, take part in sport and live independently."

Living with Learning Disability

Read on to find out more about living with learning disability and how it may affect daily life.

Everyone who has a learning disability is an individual and they experience life and learning disability in a unique way. We cannot convey the learning disability symptoms each person will have, or the challenges they may come across, but below, we will try to give an insight into what it is like living with learning disability.

We explore the areas of life that may be affected by learning disability, options for treatment for learning disability, learning disability products, and how to live a healthy life if you or someone you know has a learning disability.


Impact on daily living

Some children with learning disability, and their families, as well as adults with learning disability, may experience challenges in areas of daily life such as:

Education and schoolwork – some children with learning disability may benefit from attending a special needs school, whereas some may find a mainstream school is able to meet their needs, with support from a special educational needs coordinator (SENCO). For more information about choosing a school and getting the right learning disability help for your child, visit the MENCAP website

Becoming an adult – some families experience difficulties when a child becomes too old to receive support from child based services and transitions to adult services. There are usually many questions and decisions to be made, such as what to do after school. The key to this is planning ahead. MENCAP provides lots of information about transitioning to adulthood

Mental health – people with a learning disability are sometimes more likely to have mental health problems such as anxiety, depression and stress, and it is thought that 40% of people with learning disability have a mental health problem. If you or someone you know is experiencing mental health issues, visit the MIND website

Independent living and housing – there are many options for an adult with learning disability to live independently or semi-independently and supported, for example, in residential care homes, supported housing or in a shared lives scheme. Read more information on housing options here

Stigma – some people report that there is a general lack of understanding about what it means to have a learning disability and that this causes social stigma. People with a learning disability are very capable in many aspects of life, with some simply requiring a bit of extra support. There are many charities campaigning for the rights of people with learning disability, which aim to break down the stigma that can be attached to them.

The SENDirect website features lots of learning disability support services listed by area, so you can explore options for learning disability help at home, respite care, childcare, technology, training, adulthood transitions, and much more.

If you have a learning disability, know someone who has or are a carer for someone with learning disability, it can help to read personal stories of others sharing similar experiences. There are many people with learning disability that are able to work, socialise, enjoy hobbies and have a good sense of wellbeing – for example, read Sinead’s story here.

Treatment for learning disability

Learning disability is not a disease to be treated and it is a lifelong condition. Therefore, there is no cure and no medications that can improve IQ, reduce symptoms, or reverse the changes in the brain that have caused learning disability.

Learning disability treatments are therefore centred on providing the right support throughout a person’s life, so that they are given opportunities to develop, learn new skills and become as independent as possible.

There are many types of specialist educational and therapy programs that provide learning disability treatment for children and adults, for example:

Art/music/dance therapy – creative therapies can help motivate and empower people with learning disabilities as well as allow them to engage in communication and learn how to express themselves

Occupational therapy – designed to find ways for a child or adult to develop their organisational skills, life skills and daily activities

Physiotherapy – designed to help someone with learning disability to develop an exercise regime or overcome physical/mobility challenges

Some people with a learning disability diagnosis may need to take medication to help reduce symptoms of other conditions.

Products for learning disability

There are many learning disability products available. NRS Healthcare are experts in providing daily living aids, which are products designed to help people live independently and make everyday tasks easier. Here, we list a range of daily living aids that may help both children and adults with learning disability, at home, school or when living independently.

Toys, sensory stimulation and relaxation aids:

o Fiddle toy

o Aroma Dough

o Nature Sound Pyramid

o Tactile Sensory Bag

o Body Massage Bag

o Undo-Me Mini Cube

Classroom posture aids:

o Floor Sitter

o Corner Seat Table

o Back2Go Support

o Posture Cushion

Eating and drinking aids:

o Children’s non-spill Cups

o Children’s Plate

Staying in touch aids:

o Simple Mobile Phone

o Memory Button Phone

Emergency contacting devices for independent living:

o GPS locator

o Auto dialling alarm

Products for profound and multiple learning disabilities:

o Posture rolls

o Showering and toileting chair

o Mobile Hoist

This is only a very short list of products, and there are thousands of aids available to help with aspects of daily life, personal care, mobility, and so on. If you are unsure what learning disability aids for daily living are available to help you or your child, NRS Healthcare has a team of Occupational Therapist product advisors who can advise you. Contact them on 0345 121 8111 or email [email protected]

Diet for learning disability

People with a learning disability sometimes need support to eat healthily and to maintain a healthy weight. They may find it difficult to understand why eating healthy food is important, or find it harder to restrict snacks and treats.

Some conditions of which learning disability is a symptom, may lead to increased risk of becoming obese. Being overweight may lead to further health problems down the line.

Some people with a learning disability may not eat enough, or may be underweight, which is also an issue.

Adults with a learning disability who live independently may need support with shopping, cooking, preparing food and drinks, and so on.

If you are concerned about the weight of someone with learning disability, speak to their GP for advice.

For information on what a balanced diet is, visit the NHS website.

The NHS also provides information on teaching your child good eating skills.

Exercise for learning disability

Regular exercise is important for everybody and people with learning disability may need some help to become more active or develop an exercise regime. Anything that gets the body moving and the heart pumping counts as exercise. People with learning disability are often able to participate in lots of different exercise e.g. dance, team sports, yoga, swimming, etc. This easy read leaflet gives advice on how to get active with a learning disability.

Learning disability and employment

Many people with learning disability are able to work and make a valuable contribution to their workplace and society but the amount of people that are actually in employment is small. Some people report it is hard to find work, and to get the right support to find work. There is a lack of understanding generally from employers about what learning disability is, and the abilities of someone with a learning disability.

Mencap provides lots of information and support in finding work for people with learning disabilities. Their Employ Me service helps find work for people with learning disability, as well as helping them gain experience and learn how to cope with interviews and applications. They also provide a Good for Business brochure which outlines the benefits of employing people with a learning disability.

Did you know... "Learning disability is sometimes caused by another health condition, such as Down’s syndrome or cerebral palsy."

Support for Learning Disability

Remember – you are not alone!

We hope you have found this guide to learning disability interesting. We have tried to explain what causes learning disability, the symptoms of learning disability and the process for a diagnosis of learning disability. We have also explored learning disability products that may help, and the impact it has on a person’s daily life, including diet, exercise and employment.

There are many ways to have a good quality of life if you have a learning disability, or if you are caring for someone who does. Everyone with a learning disability is an individual, and deserves understanding and support so that they can develop and have lots of opportunities in life.


Learning disability help is available from the NHS, your child’s educational establishment, and many charities. You are not alone, and here we provide links to other sites that provide help for learning disability as well as some online forums where you can discuss your experiences with other people. If you are concerned about anything you have read about in this guide, please visit your GP.


Choice Forum – an online support group for people with learning disabilities, their families and friends

Scope Forum – an online group for sharing stories, advice and support


Carers Trust – a charity providing support and services for people who are unpaid carers for family or friends, with a website including information about benefits, assessments and your own wellbeing, and a network of local partners where you can go for advice

Carers UK – a charity providing expert advice if you are a carer for someone with learning disability or any other condition, as well as an online community you can use for support

Contact a Family – lots of advice and information for families with disabled children, as well as options for contacting each other for support

NHS – source of medical and healthcare information about learning difficulties and related conditions

Mencap – a charity dedicated to learning disability, providing information, an advice helpline, local partner organisations and the FamilyHub online community

Did you know... "Learning disability is often noticed in childhood, but many people who are living with a learning disability do not receive a diagnosis."


Unsure what something means? Checkout our Glossary section below.

Although we always try to explain things as simply and as clearly as possible, sometimes it’s necessary to use the correct medical terminology.

Medical terms are often known for being tricky to pronounce, and if you’re not an expert on the subject, they can also be a little difficult to understand. Below, we’ve put together a list of terms used on this page along with a brief explanation of what they mean to help make your understanding of learning disability as straightforward as possible.


Chromosomal abnormality

– when a chromosome is missing or mutates to create changes in a person’s DNA, which may cause physical or mental differences

Developmental delays

– as a child ages, they will usually achieve certain physical and mental milestones at similar times to their peers, but some children with a learning disability will achieve these development milestones much later


– a condition that causes problems with reading, writing and spelling, but which does not affect intelligence levels


– related to genes, which are the building blocks of our inherited characteristics

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