What is a Learning Disability?

A learning disability affects the way a person learns new things in any part of their life, not just at school. It affects how they understand information and how they communicate. They may also have problems with learning new skills and coping with everyday living independently.

The international criteria for identifying a learning disability are: Intellectual impairment (low IQ); Impaired social functioning with a reduced ability to cope independently; Early onset with lasting effect.

Levels of Learning Disability

Mild learning disability disability: usually people can communicate and look after themselves but may take longer to acquire new skills.

Moderate disability: people will have more difficulties in these areas and will require much more help and support. They may also have more than one disability.

Severe disability: people with little or no speech who find it very difficult to learn new skills, need support with daily activities such as dressing, washing, eating and keeping safe, have difficulties with social skills, need life-long support.

Profound and Multiple Learning Disability: people have multiple problems. These can be sensory such as hearing or physical such as movement and mobility or complex health or developmental difficulties such as epilepsy or autism.

There are no clear dividing lines between these different groups and they may overlap. IQ level is only one small part of assessing someone’s strengths and needs.


Learning Disability is the general term used in the UK to describe those individuals who have difficulties with learning, understanding and communicating.

Learning Difficulty is a term used in educational settings and is interchangeable with the term learning disability.

Specific Learning Difficulty refers to conditions like dyslexia but does not necessarily indicate an impairment in intelligence.

Special Educational Needs (SEN) is used in education to describe all students who have extra needs which need additional support.

Intellectual Disability and Developmental Disability are both terms interchangeable with Learning Disability and are used internationally but not usually in the UK.

Global Development Delay. The term ‘developmental delay’ or ‘global development delay’ is used when a child takes longer to reach certain developmental milestones than other children of their age.

Challenging Behaviour. Some people with a learning disability may demonstrate extreme behaviour, which is often referred to as challenging behaviour


For the majority of individuals a learning disability is present from birth or from the early years of their development. An acquired learning disability as a result of a brain injury can happen at any time.

Causes can include: genetic factors, infections during pregnancy; brain injury or damage through illness. For many who are diagnosed with having a general learning disability the cause is never found.

Social, emotional and environmental factors can also contribute to a learning disability. Poor diet and health care, lack of stimulation or severe abuse can all affect a child’s development.

Conditions related to learning disability

There are many conditions and syndromes which may result in individuals having a learning disability. These conditions include: Autistic Spectrum Condition; Fragile X syndrome; unique conditions and rare chromosomal disorders; Down’s syndrome.

People with learning disabilities have varying levels of ability. Each person can have a good quality of life with appropriate support and education. Some people with a learning disability also have other physical and emotional conditions, and may receive more than one diagnosis. This can have an impact on the kind of support they and their families need in their day-to-day life. You can find out more about some of the conditions associated with learning disability at:

Contact a Family www.cafamily.org.uk

Mencap www.mencap.org.uk