What is a learning disability?

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 where you can find support.

A learning disability affects the way a person understands information and how they communicate. Around 1.5m people in the UK have one. This means they can have difficulty:  

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

It is thought that up to 350,000 people have severe learning disabilities. This figure is increasing.

Mild, moderate or severe learning disability

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 a learning difficulty or mental illness. Consultant paediatrician Dr Martin Ward Platt says: "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.

"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 with learning disabilities 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.

Children and young people with a learning disability may also have special educational needs. Find out more about education and how you can request a statement.

Sources of support for learning disabilities

Some learning disabilities are diagnosed at birth, such as Down's syndrome. 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 many 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 a profound and multiple learning disability (PMLD) 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 Care and support.  

Page last reviewed: 31/05/2013

Next review due: 31/05/2015

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