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.

Page contents:

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.

Further Information

The Community Children’s Health Partnership CCHP has information about learning disabilities and how to access local services for a child with a learning disability such as the Child Disability Team or the Specialist service for children with learning disabilities 

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.