Learning disabilities

Children with learning disabilities do not learn certain skills as quickly as other people. They may, therefore, need extra help in certain aspects of their lives. The skills in question will depend upon the type of needs they may have.

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The difference between a learning disability and a learning difficulty

A learning disability is a reduced intellectual ability and difficulty with everyday activities such as household tasks, socialising or managing money. A learning disability starts before adulthood and affects someone for their whole life. It is different from a learning difficulty as a learning difficulty does not affect general intellect. Learning difficulties include conditions such as dyslexia, attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyspraxia and dyscalculia.

The causes of 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.

The cause may be due to

  • illness during pregnancy
  • illness in the child such as meningitis
  • problems during birth, causing a lack of oxygen getting to the brain
  • an injury

Learning disabilities could also be caused by a child inheriting certain genes from its parents, known as an inherited learning disability. It can be associated with a genetic condition such as Down’s syndrome or cerebral palsy. The NHS website has more information about genetics.

Learning difficulties can also be associated with autism and epilepsy.

The NHS website has information about many conditions listed alphabetically.

Sometimes there is no known cause.

Types of learning disability

Learning disabilities can be mild, moderate, severe or profound.  For further information see Mencap’s guide on the different types of learning disability.

If a person has severe learning disabilities that significantly impact their ability to communicate, this is known as profound and multiple learning disabilities (PMLD).

Mencap have information about PMLD and how to get the right support, as well as information guides and resources.

We have additional information on our Disabilities and conditions article.

Seeking advice or referral for assessment

If you are a parent concerned about your child’s development you should speak to your GP, health visitor or school health nurse. Health visitors and GPs will also look at what age the child is reaching their developmental milestones, such as learning to talk and developing physical skills.

More information can be found on our Getting a diagnosis article

If the concerns are severe or ongoing, and you would like your child to be assessed for complex disabilities, ask your GP to refer you to a Community Paediatrician to seek a potential diagnosis, and to access specialist support.

Trial the NHS learning disability screening tool for children and young people

The learning disability screening tool has been developed by NHS clinicians based on feedback from families.

It is a short questionnaire that can help identify if a child or young person aged between 6 and 18 may have a learning disability. 

Assessment can be a complex and time-consuming process for everyone involved. Services recognise the challenges faced by families and are looking for faster and more efficient ways of getting families the support they need. We're trialling the tool in the South Gloucestershire area to find out how useful it might be. After the trial period, we'll review the tool to understand the benefits of using it.

If you use the tool, we might contact you to ask you if you'd like to give us any feedback about it. 

The tool cannot:

  • tell you if the child or young person definitely has a learning disability or not, it can only give you an indication
  • diagnose the specific learning disability the child or young person may have

The learning disability tool is designed to be used by:

  • young people
  • parents and carers
  • families
  • professionals such as nurses, teachers, social workers, health visitors, GPs and police officers

You can use the tool with or on behalf of the child or young person.

The tool is not suitable for children and young people aged:

  • under 6
  • over 18

Remember that the tool can only give an indication of whether the child or young person has a learning disability or not. You must always get an assessment from a professional, such as your GP, to confirm what the tool tells you.

When you've answered the questions in the tool, you'll get one of two outcomes.

Outcome 1

Your responses indicate that it's likely the child or young person has a learning disability. You should ask the child or young person's:

  • GP for support and an assessment
  • school nurse and Special Educational Needs Coordinator (SENCO) for support

You could also ask your GP to:

Outcome 2

Your responses indicate that it's unlikely the child or young person has a learning disability.

If you still have concerns, talk to the child or young person's:

  • GP
  • school nurse
  • Special Educational Needs Coordinator (SENCO)

You can access the tool on the Learning Disability Matters website

Further Information

We have set out our vision and priorities for people of any age with a learning disability in the  all age learning disability strategy 2022-27 or you can download an easy read version of the strategy. There is an action plan within the document which shows how we will deliver the strategy. 

The Avon and Wiltshire Mental Health Partnership website has information on the Child and Adolescent Mental Health service for Learning Disability. 

Find out more from the NHS about learning disabilities.

South West National Network of Parent Carer Forums have produced a booklet for parents on admission avoidance.  The guide provides information on how to avoid mental health admissions for young people with autism and/or a learning disability.

Mencap have a wealth of information about learning disabilities, including:

See our Local Offer page on things to do for children and young people and also information about our service directory for children and young people with special educational needs and/or a disability.