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Understanding Different Learning Disabilities: A Comprehensive Guide

Introduction

Learning disabilities are relatively common in the UK and affect around two percent of the population. According to Mencap, 1.5 million people in the UK are living with a learning disability, and 1.3 million are in England. These conditions affect around 2.16% of adults and 2.5% of children.

Learning disabilities can significantly impact those living with a condition. They can find it difficult to understand information and communicate, affecting their social skills and ability to build relationships. They may also take longer to learn things, struggle to learn new skills and be independent, thus requiring additional support throughout their lives, especially with personal care and finances.

People with learning disabilities can also have comorbidities, such as mental and physical health issues. Therefore, they are at a higher risk of poorer health and well-being, longer hospital stays and dying at an earlier age (NICE). How a person is affected by their learning disability will depend on the type and complexity. Some people may do most things themselves; others may need help with everyday activities.

There is still much misinformation, misconceptions and stigma surrounding learning disabilities. This guide aims to provide a comprehensive understanding of different types of learning disabilities, including their characteristics, causes, and strategies for support.

Understanding Different Learning Disabilities A Comprehensive Guide

Defining Learning Disabilities

“A learning disability is a reduced intellectual ability and difficulty with everyday activities – for example, household tasks, socialising or managing money – which affects someone for their whole life” (Mencap).

Some further definitions are on NICE.

Learning disabilities, or intellectual disabilities, are often confused with learning difficulties or developmental disorders. However, there are differences:

  • Learning difficulties – affect people’s ability to process specific types of information.
  • Developmental disorders – affect physical and brain development, occur in childhood and can result in significant impairments.

Some of the key differences are detailed below.

Learning disabilities

  • Affects intellectual functioning and adaptive behaviour.
  • People have reduced intellectual abilities.
  • Impacts learning in all aspects of life.
  • Persists throughout life.
  • People can struggle with everyday tasks.
  • Ranges from mild to severe on a scale.

Learning difficulties

  • Does not affect intellect.
  • People find it challenging to learn specific things, e.g. maths, writing or reading.
  • Usually presents in childhood.
  • Not lifelong and can improve over time.
  • People can struggle academically.
  • Also exists on a scale.

Developmental disorders

  • Affects certain aspects of a child’s development, e.g. motor skills, cognition, language, social skills, etc.
  • Learning is typically slow in all areas.
  • Do not specifically affect academic learning.
  • Persists throughout life.

An individual can have both a learning disability and a learning difficulty and a combination of the latter. Mencap has further information on the differences here.

Learning disabilities are diverse in nature and can affect everyone differently. They can be mild, moderate or severe:

  • Mild learning disabilities – often difficult to diagnose as individuals can cope with most everyday tasks and communicate well with others. They may have challenges with reading, writing or maths, take longer to learn new skills and progress slower in education. They may also require support with more complex areas, e.g. finance management and form filling.
  • Moderate learning disabilities – requires more support than individuals with mild learning disabilities, especially with reading, writing and maths. They may struggle with mobility and personal care and require support. However, unlike those with severe learning disabilities, they are usually able to communicate their basic needs with support.
  • Severe learning disabilities – also known as profound and multiple learning disabilities (PMLDs). Individuals can have difficulties communicating with others and understanding complex information and may also have physical disabilities, e.g. hearing or visual impairments. Their daily functioning is significantly impacted, and they will typically require around-the-clock support with day-to-day activities.

Learning disabilities are lifelong, and there is no cure. However, there are ways to support individuals to be as independent as possible and have a good quality of life.

Understanding Different Learning Disabilities A Comprehensive Guide

Types of Learning Disabilities

Some conditions make it more likely an individual will have a learning disability, and some examples include (this list is not exhaustive):

  • Autism Spectrum Disorder – a neurological disorder that is not a learning disability by itself. However, around 50% of people with autism have a learning disability (Mencap).
  • Cerebral palsy – a group of lifelong conditions that affect movement and coordination due to brain development problems before, during or soon after birth. According to NICE, an IQ <70 is observed in around 1 in 2  people with cerebral palsy, while severe learning disability (IQ < 50) is observed in around 1 in 4.
  • Down’s syndrome – some people are born with an extra chromosome, which causes the genetic condition Down’s Syndrome. They will have some level of learning disability.
  • Epilepsy – a neurological condition that can occur at any time of life. It is more common in people with a learning disability, and around 1 in 5 people (20%) with epilepsy also have a learning disability (Epilepsy Society).

It is important to note that some learning difficulties and neurodevelopment and neurological conditions are often mistaken for learning disabilities, including Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, dysgraphia and dyscalculia. These are not classed as learning disabilities, as they do not generally affect a person’s intellect. Some common types of learning difficulties include:

  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) – a neurodevelopmental condition that affects people’s behaviour, e.g. inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsiveness. It can affect children and adults. People with ADHD can have trouble concentrating, being organised and following instructions. They may have challenges regarding reasoning, comprehension, completing tasks and retaining information.
  • Dyslexia – a person may have difficulties with spelling, reading, language and writing skills, or understanding words. They may have challenges with grammar, and their vocabulary may take longer to develop. They may also read slower and have difficulty recognising certain words or sounds.
  • Dysgraphia – affects an individual’s writing ability because of spelling, grammar, vocabulary and critical thinking problems. They may have handwriting, letter formation and spacing challenges and difficulties expressing their thoughts in writing.
  • Dyscalculia – is a learning difficulty that makes it difficult for individuals to learn and understand numbers, arithmetic, mathematical reasoning and concepts. They may have challenges reading clocks, seeing number patterns, counting money and applying formulae.
  • Auditory processing disorder – people with this condition have difficulty understanding and processing sounds, including spoken words, and misinterpret auditory information. It does not mean they have an issue with their normal hearing. They may have challenges understanding strong accents, speaking in noisy areas, people who talk fast, spoken instructions and similar sounding words.

Every individual’s experience with these conditions will vary, and they can exhibit signs of multiple conditions.

Understanding Different Learning Disabilities A Comprehensive Guide

Characteristics and Symptoms

No two people will be the same regarding their learning disabilities, characteristics and symptoms, and it will depend on whether their condition is mild, moderate or severe, if they are a child or adult and if they have any other conditions. Here are some examples of signs and symptoms of a learning disability:

Children

  • Feeding problems (babies).
  • Developmental delays, e.g. delays in sitting and standing and slow language development, e.g. learning and pronouncing new words.
  • Poor concentration, focus, attention and memory.
  • Recurring issues with maths, reading, writing and spelling.
  • Difficulty listening and following instructions.
  • Organisation issues and poor time management, e.g. losing things and not meeting deadlines.
  • Dyspraxia, i.e. clumsiness.
  • Restlessness and impulsiveness.
  • Acting out.
  • Poor academic performance.
  • Issues with changes in situations or schedules.

Adults

  • Finding it hard and slower to learn and understand new skills or information.
  • Recurring issues with maths, reading, writing and spelling.
  • Difficulty focusing.
  • Memory and coordination problems.
  • Difficulties with direction and time.
  • Communication issues, e.g. limited vocabulary, slow speech and difficulty following and understanding conversations.
  • Challenges in understanding what is and is not acceptable behaviour.

Some people may also experience the following:

  • Difficulty distinguishing between sounds, letters, or numbers.
  • Putting letters or numbers in the wrong sequence or reversing them.
  • Not understanding the meaning of words.

If someone has a mild learning disability, the signs and symptoms can be subtle, and some may live with it for years without knowing or getting a diagnosis. Also, the above signs and symptoms can indicate other conditions, so individuals should see a GP with any concerns.

Understanding Different Learning Disabilities A Comprehensive Guide

Causes and Risk Factors

It is not always clear what causes learning disabilities. However, they can occur in pregnancy, during birth or early childhood when the baby’s brain development is affected. Genetics, environmental factors and specific conditions are also possible causes and risk factors, for example:

Developmental

  • Accidents or illnesses during pregnancy.
  • Insufficient oxygen to the brain due to birth complications, e.g. cerebral palsy or premature birth.
  • Accidents or illnesses during early childhood, e.g. head injuries or meningitis.
  • Non-genetic congenital malformations, e.g. spina bifida.

Genetic

  • Genetic predisposition: For example, if parents have a learning disability or an associated condition, it is more likely their children will inherit it.

Environmental

  • Drinking alcohol, smoking and taking drugs during pregnancy.
  • Malnutrition, especially during critical developmental stages.
  • Exposure to hazardous substances and toxins, such as lead.
  • Traumatic childhood experiences, e.g. child abuse or neglect or lack of stimulation and support.
  • Poor healthcare and housing.

Specific conditions (make a learning disability more likely)

  • Genetic or chromosomal abnormalities, e.g. Down’s syndrome.
  • Neurodevelopmental disorders, e.g. autism and ADHD.
  • Neurological disorders, e.g. epilepsy.
Understanding Different Learning Disabilities A Comprehensive Guide

Assessment and Diagnosis

Often, learning disabilities are not noticeable until children reach school age, or they may occur later in life after accidents or illnesses. It is important to get a diagnosis to identify learning disabilities and other conditions to receive appropriate care and support. It will allow individuals to get to know themselves better, improve their skills, be as independent as possible and have a good quality of life.

If an individual has signs and symptoms of a learning disability, they should see a GP who will likely assess and refer them.  The assessment and diagnosis process will typically differ depending on where a person is in the UK, e.g. England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

After a referral, the process usually begins with a clinical evaluation, where a health professional, such as a paediatrician (for children) or a clinical psychologist, will gather information about their family/medical/developmental/educational history, health problems, signs and symptoms, difficulties, etc. They will then assess their intellectual functioning and adaptive behaviour using appropriate assessment measures.

In some cases, they can detect health conditions associated with learning disabilities during pregnancy, at birth and early childhood. For example, they offer pregnant women in England screening for Down’s Syndrome between 10-14 weeks (Mencap), which assesses the likelihood of their baby having the condition.

For children in early years settings and schools, other professionals may have a role in assessing learning difficulties, which may also end in a diagnosis of a learning disability if they encourage the individual or their family/carer to get a diagnosis from a healthcare professional. Educational psychologists and special education professionals can conduct diagnostic assessments to identify whether the individual has difficulties with learning and the support that can help meet their needs.

Often, it requires a multidisciplinary approach to assess and diagnose learning disabilities and difficulties, meaning various professionals collaborate, e.g. health and social care and educational professionals, with individuals and their families/carers.

Understanding Different Learning Disabilities A Comprehensive Guide

Impact on Education and Daily Life

Individuals with learning disabilities can face various and distinct challenges, which can have a significant impact throughout their lives. The impacts will depend on the type and level of learning disability and whether they have any comorbidities, such as physical and mental health conditions.

Some of the impacts and challenges faced by individuals with learning disabilities can include:

Education – they can find academic skills challenging and reading, writing, spelling, maths and critical thinking difficult. They can struggle with new and complex information and concepts, following instructions and skill development. It can result in poor academic performance, especially if they do not have appropriate support.

Examples of strategies:

  • Create Individualised Education Plans (IEPs) that address specific learning needs.
  • Understand their learning styles and use tailored teaching approaches.
  • Use alternative teaching methods and learning materials, including large text and visual aids. Also, consider using pictures to describe what is in writing.
  • Adopt individualised approaches to learning.
  • Break assignments and tasks into smaller steps.
  • Make reasonable adjustments and accommodations, e.g. extra time for exams and assistive technology and aids, such as special computers, tablets and mobile phones, speech-to-text software, audiobooks and apps.
  • Consider providing options to adjust technology, e.g. text size/colour, background, volume/tone, read-aloud speed, etc.
  • Use multisensory approaches and incorporate visual, auditory, and kinesthetic methods.

Social interactions – having a learning disability can make it difficult for some individuals to effectively communicate and understand social cues, context and body language. Some may also exhibit challenging behaviours. It can result in social isolation, withdrawal and loneliness. They can also face discrimination and stigma.

Examples of strategies:

  • Use clear, simple language and simplify explanations.
  • Consider using visual aids, pictures and technology to enhance understanding.
  • Actively listen to them with empathy and compassion.
  • Teach them resilience and conflict resolution.
  • Consider social skills training, e.g. social rules, norms and behaviours.
  • Conduct role-playing and practice social interactions.
  • Encourage positive socialisation and connections with people who understand them. Look at charities, local community groups, peer support and social media groups that run various activities and clubs.

Daily life – some individuals can have difficulties with everyday tasks, self-care, decision making and independent living, meaning they cannot look after themselves properly. They may need support with various tasks, such as managing finances, personal care, shopping, cooking and getting to and from places. It can affect their emotional well-being and make them frustrated and anxious.

Examples of strategies:

  • Teach life skills, such as budgeting and cooking.
  • Break complex tasks down into simple and small steps.
  • Encourage self-advocacy where they let others know about their needs and seek appropriate support where necessary.
  • Recommend counselling, which can provide them with coping strategies.
  • Use visual aids wherever possible.
  • Promote self-care, e.g. good nutrition, exercise, sleep and relaxation techniques, such as meditation and deep breathing, and stress management.
  • Provide adaptations around the home.
  • Encourage them to build a support network of family, friends, peers and professionals.

It is important to identify an individual’s needs, preferences and wishes, regardless of the level of learning disability. It is essential to get to know them, understand the support they need and personalise it to promote independence and their well-being. They should also be involved in decisions regarding their care and support. An individualised plan can ensure support and interventions are tailored to their needs.

Supporting individuals with learning disabilities and creating an inclusive environment requires a collaborative approach with family, friends, peers, professionals and specialists.

Understanding Different Learning Disabilities A Comprehensive Guide

Support and Intervention Strategies

Regardless of a person’s learning disability, they should receive appropriate support and interventions to help them succeed academically and functionally, and here are some examples of strategies (this list is not exhaustive):

  • General care – anyone aged 14 and over diagnosed with a learning disability should receive an annual healthcare check and have a health action plan reviewed annually. Further information on annual healthcare checks is here.
  • Needs assessments – adults with learning disabilities can get a needs assessment from their local council adult social care department. It can help identify what support they need to manage everyday tasks and activities and any adjustments required around their home. The NHS has further information on needs assessments here.
  • Behaviour support plans – are written plans for people with learning disabilities and challenging behaviour. They contain various strategies and adaptations that improve their quality of life and remove things that can cause challenging behaviour. NICE has further information on these plans here.
  • Individualised Educational Plans (IEPs) – these are created by schools with families, children, and other professionals. They assess, set learning goals and design tailored instructional techniques, and are also used to review progress.
  • Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs or EHC plans) – are legal documents requiring local authorities to provide appropriate support beyond what a school can provide. They identify educational, health and social needs and detail personalised support. GOV.UK has further information about these plans here.
  • Therapies – various therapies may be available to people with learning disabilities, such as cognitive behavioural therapy, speech and language therapy, NHS talking therapies, psychotherapy, occupational therapy, etc. GPs may refer individuals to services or they may be able to self-refer, i.e. for talking therapies. Charities, e.g. Mencap and Respond, may also offer therapies or signpost to appropriate services.
  • SEND tutoring – special educators and tutors who are qualified and specialists in SEND can provide targeted tuition to people with learning disabilities, one-to-one or in a group.
  • Medication – if the individual has other health problems and interventions are ineffective, healthcare professionals may prescribe medication that may relieve some of their symptoms.

The accommodations and modifications needed will depend on the individual’s learning disability and unique situation. Any support and interventions must be person-centred. Some examples include:

  • Accessible information, e.g. visual and video supports, large text, simple/clear language, adjustable text size, colour and background.
  • Adapting communication, e.g. using accessible language, avoiding jargon, adjusting pace, following their lead and using communication tools, such as Makaton (Mencap).
  • Technological support (assistive technology), e.g. special computers, tablets and phones, apps and devices. There are also reading and writing aids, text-to-speech software, speech recognition tools, etc.
  • Additional time, e.g. for healthcare appointments and assessments/exams.
  • Home adaptations and household gadgets and equipment.
  • Multisensory instruction, e.g. accounts for various learning styles and abilities by engaging multiple senses, such as sight, touch, hearing, smell and taste.

It is also important to identify interventions and support for family members/carers so they can provide the best possible care and support and look after their own health and well-being.

Some further information about reasonable adjustments and adaptations is on the following:

Understanding Different Learning Disabilities A Comprehensive Guide

Advocacy and Empowerment

People with learning disabilities can often feel isolated and that their voice is unheard, especially if they have communication difficulties. They may feel their needs are not met but may lack the self-esteem and confidence to speak out. Therefore, self-advocacy is important. It is where they speak up for themselves and express their feelings and ideas. It is vital as it enables them to understand and stand up for their own rights, communicate their needs and preferences, and actively participate in life.

Empowerment is also crucial for people with learning disabilities, and it is where they are encouraged to take more control of their lives, assert their rights and needs and make their own decisions. When empowered, they feel more confident and able to explore new experiences, and their active involvement can help provide tailored support that meets their needs and preferences.

Here are some tips and resources for individuals regarding self-advocacy, building self-esteem, and accessing support services:

Tips

They should:

  • Understand their needs, rights, strengths, preferences and learning problems, and identify where they need support.
  • Understand the meaning of self-advocacy and how it applies to their life.
  • Join support groups and workshops focused on self-advocacy.
  • Practice self-kindness and compassion, be positive and believe in themselves.
  • Seek support from family, friends, peers, mentors, educators, like-minded, positive people, advocacy organisations and professionals specialising in learning disabilities.
  • Know their legal rights, adjustments and accommodations, and what they are entitled to in education, work and the community.
  • Practice developing their skills, such as communicating, problem-solving and decision-making, to confidently express their needs, preferences and concerns, actively listen and effectively advocate for themselves.
  • Set goals and identify the resources and accommodations they need to self-advocate.
  • Use successful self-advocates as role models.

Resources

Understanding Different Learning Disabilities A Comprehensive Guide

Educational and Legal Rights

People with learning disabilities have educational and legal rights and are protected under laws such as:

  • The Equality Act 2010 has disability as one of the nine protected characteristics. It is unlawful for individuals to be discriminated against, harassed or victimised because of their learning disabilities, and they should be treated equally and fairly. Educational settings, workplaces, businesses, service providers and public services must also make reasonable adjustments to ensure those with learning disabilities are accommodated. The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (DDA) applies in Northern Ireland.
  • The Public Sector Equality Duty (PSED) applies to public authorities, such as those listed in Schedule 19 of the Act. They have a legal duty to consider how their decisions and policies will affect those classed as having a protected characteristic, such as those with disabilities, under the Equality Act.
  • The Human Rights Act 1998 gives rights to those with learning disabilities, i.e. the right to life free from abuse or neglect and to not be discriminated against because of their disability (Debenham, 2024).
  • The Mental Capacity Act 2005 applies when a person with a learning disability lacks the mental capacity to make decisions. It aims to protect vulnerable people. CPD Online College has further information on the Act here.

In educational settings, such as schools, there are specific requirements in statutory guidance documents, such as the SEND code of practice: 0 to 25 years, which detail what local authorities, health bodies, schools and colleges must provide for those with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).

Further information on disability rights is on:

Understanding Different Learning Disabilities A Comprehensive Guide

Understanding and Reducing Stigma

There are many misconceptions surrounding learning disabilities, including that people with these conditions are unable to learn, have low intelligence/IQ, are all the same and cannot be successful or happy in their lives. Some people also regularly confuse learning disabilities with learning difficulties and believe the former negatively impacts society because of a lack of productivity. If you ask most people what a learning disability is, they would probably struggle to define it. According to research by Mencap, approximately 33 million people in Britain cannot correctly classify what a learning disability is (Big Issue).

People with learning disabilities also face stigma because of other people’s negative attitudes, beliefs and behaviours. It can make those with learning disabilities feel socially excluded and prejudiced against. They may also experience bullying and face barriers when accessing healthcare, housing, education, employment, and social activities. Some people may suffer from discrimination and unfair treatment because of their learning disabilities, which is unlawful under the Equality Act.

Stigma and discrimination can significantly and negatively impact the lives of people with learning disabilities and their loved ones.  It is vital to promote understanding, acceptance, and inclusion of individuals with learning disabilities in society to help combat misconceptions, stigma and discrimination. Here are some examples of strategies to adopt:

  • Legislation and policy – those with disabilities are protected under equality and human rights laws. It is vital to identify those that apply and understand how they affect people with learning disabilities and their families. Lobbying governments and petitioning can enhance their rights and opportunities.
  • Education – educate people and make them aware of what learning disabilities are, the challenges people can face and their role in creating an inclusive society where everyone feels welcome. Having knowledge and understanding is fundamental to making positive changes. Many learning disability charities, such as Mencap, have awareness campaigns, and celebrities have become involved in increasing visibility in the media. Schools could also include it in the curriculum.
  • Break down barriers – identify the barriers that people with learning disabilities face and involve them and their families in looking at ways to break them down and the resources and support they would need.
  • Provide employment opportunities – many people with learning disabilities want to work, so employers could actively employ them, provide them with the accommodations they need and increase disability representation within their workforce.
  • Encourage social inclusion and interactions – whether at school or work or in the community, it is vital to encourage those with learning disabilities to integrate and others to interact, e.g. by setting up school, work or community projects and events. It can create understanding, empathy and acceptance.
  • Challenge misconceptions, stigma and discrimination – people with learning disabilities and others should be encouraged to challenge any misinformation, stereotypes, prejudices, biases and negative attitudes/behaviours surrounding learning disabilities positively.
  • Encourage advocacy – whether it is others advocating or people with learning disabilities self-advocating, advocacy can amplify their voices, leading to positive changes in attitudes, laws, policies, and practices.

Further information

Understanding Different Learning Disabilities A Comprehensive Guide

Conclusion

Over 1 million people are living with a learning disability in England alone, and they can face various struggles and challenges depending on the type, severity and whether they have any other health conditions. They may also have learning difficulties as well as their disabilities, and it is vital to distinguish between the two, as they are often confused.

Each person with a learning disability will experience different symptoms and have varying characteristics. While it is not fully clear why learning disabilities develop, there can be many causes and risk factors – covered in this guide. Regardless, people should visit their GP if they suspect they or their child has a learning disability, as appropriate interventions and support can make a real difference in their lives.

Learning disabilities can significantly impact people’s education and daily life. However, numerous evidence-based interventions, strategies and support can help individuals and their families/carers. These should be personalised to meet their needs, and they should be encouraged and empowered to understand their rights and make their voice heard.

It is vitally important to understand and support individuals with learning disabilities with empathy, respect, and inclusivity. It can help reduce misconceptions, stigma and discrimination and help them feel valued and respected, enhancing social inclusion and reducing isolation and loneliness. We can all help by continuing learning, understanding and advocating for the rights and well-being of individuals with learning disabilities.

Understanding Different Learning Disabilities A Comprehensive Guide
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