Learning disabilities

This page is an introductory guide to learning disabilities.  

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Learning disabilities can range from mild to severe. No two people are affected in the same way.  

Some people with learning disabilities go to work, have relationships and live independent lives. Others need daily support in many areas of their life.  

For some, their learning disability is part of their identity, not something they wish to be “cured”. 

On this page: 

What is a learning disability?

Someone with a learning disability might take longer to learn new things or understand complex information. They may learn in a different way, or need information presented to them in lots of different ways. 

This could affect someone’s ability to do lots of everyday things, like managing money or socialising.  

Learning disabilities usually start in childhood, but some people are not diagnosed until they are adults. Learning disabilities are lifelong conditions. 

A learning disability is different for everyone. No two people with a learning disability are the same. 

Many people with learning disabilities can live independently. Other people might need more support with day-to-day life. 

Types of learning disability 

A learning disability can be mild, moderate, severe or profound. In all cases, a learning disability affects someone’s whole life. 

Mild learning disabilities 

Someone with a mild learning disability may get on well with others and be able cope with most everyday tasks.  

They may, however, need support in more complicated areas of life, such as filling out complex forms or managing finances. 

Moderate learning disabilities 

Someone with a moderate learning disability will need more day-to-day support than a person with a mild learning disability. 

This could include help with mobility (going out and about safely) or personal care (washing and dressing).  

Profound and multiple learning disabilities (PMLD) 

Someone with a severe learning disability, or profound and multiple learning disabilities (PMLD), will find it difficult to understand complex information and to communicate with other people. 

They’ll need support with all aspects of life throughout the day. They might also have physical disabilities and/or a visual impairment and/or hearing impairment.  

They’ll need more health and social care and support with their mobility (getting around), eating, personal care (washing and dressing) and communicating with others. 

But, many people with a PMLD can still be involved in decisions about themselves, do things they enjoy and live a full life as independently as possible. 

Some people with PMLD might be able to use other ways of communicating, like sign language, Makaton, pictures and symbols, objects of reference or other methods, like body language. 

Find out more about different ways of communicating

What are the causes of learning disabilities? 

We don’t always know why someone has a learning disability.  

Sometimes, their brain’s development is affected, before birth, during their birth or in early childhood. 

This can be caused by: 

  • Their mother getting ill in pregnancy. 
  • The mother drinking during pregnancy, resulting in Foetal Alcohol Syndrome. 
  • A very premature birth. 
  • Problems during their birth that stop enough oxygen getting to their brain. 
  • Inheriting genes from their parents that make a learning disability more likely, such as Fragile X syndrome.
  • Conditions caused by chromosome differences, such as Down’s syndrome or Turner syndrome.
  • Illness, such as meningitis, or injury in early childhood. 
  • Contact with damaging material, such as radioactive material. 

What are the signs of a learning disability?

Signs in children

If the signs of learning disability are recognised early, you can give your child the right support, allowing them to develop the skills they will need for everyday life in the future.  

Signs include: 

  • Problems with feeding (as a baby). 
  • A delay in learning to sit and stand. 
  • Slower language development, with difficulty learning or pronouncing new words. 
  • Persistent problems with reading, writing and maths. 
  • Poor memory and concentration. 
  • Dyspraxia – clumsiness and problems with fine motor skills. 
  • Difficulty following directions. 
  • Problems getting organised, for example, losing schoolbooks or not doing homework on time.  

Signs in adults 

As an adult, knowing or even thinking about having a learning disability can be difficult, because you (or your loved one) may have lived with it for years. 

The symptoms of a mild learning disability can be hard to spot because they’re subtle. But, here are some signs to look out for: 

  • Difficulties understanding information and learning new skills. 
  • Persistent problems with maths, reading or writing. 
  • Memory problems. 
  • Communication problems, such as speaking slowly or having a small vocabulary, and struggling to follow conversations. 
  • Problems with coordination. 
  • Difficulty understanding concepts such as time and direction. 
  • Not understanding social norms, or what is acceptable behaviour in public. 

Diagnosing learning disabilities

Diagnosis is the process by which a healthcare professional – usually a paediatrician (childcare specialist) – identifies a learning disability based on a person’s needs. 

There are many routes to a diagnosis, at different times – during pregnancy, at birth, as a child or as an adult.  

Diagnosis can help you to understand yourself or your child. But it doesn’t tell you everything about who a person is and what they can do. Remember, everyone with a learning disability is different. 

If you think you or your child might have signs of a learning disability, the first step is to speak to your GP.  

Find out more about learning disability diagnosis from Mencap.

What’s the difference between learning disabilities and learning difficulties? 

A learning disability affects someone’s intellect generally across all areas of their life.  

A learning difficulty does not affect someone’s intellect. Instead, it means that someone finds it more difficult to learn a specific thing, such as reading, writing or maths. 

Is attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) a learning disability? 

No. ADHD is often mistaken for a learning disability, but it is a learning difficulty that does not affect someone’s intellect generally.

Is dyslexia a learning disability? 

No. Dyslexia is also often mistaken for a learning disability, but it is a learning difficulty that does not affect someone’s intellect generally. 

Is Down’s syndrome a learning disability? 

Down’s syndrome is not a learning disability itself, but all people with Down’s syndrome will have some level of learning disability. 

Every person with Down’s syndrome is unique and will have different strengths and challenges. Find out more about Down’s syndrome from the NHS.

Is epilepsy a learning disability? 

No, epilepsy is not a learning disability. However, there’s a link between epilepsy and learning disability. Epilepsy affects about one in five people with a learning disability. 

The more severe the learning disability, the higher the possibility that the person will also have epilepsy. 

Is autism a learning disability? 

No. But some autistic people (around four in ten) do also have a learning disability. 

Find out more about autism.

What is the learning disability register? 

The learning disability register is a list of people with learning disabilities kept by the NHS. It includes people with mild learning disabilities, and children with learning disabilities.  

Once on the learning disability register, people with a learning disability will get: 

  • Better, clearer information about health from their GP surgery. 
  • Extra support when visiting the GP and when making appointments. 
  • An annual health check (for those over 14). 
  • Priority Covid-19 vaccinations.  

How to sign up to the learning disability register

If you think that you or a loved one should be on the register, speak to your GP surgery to check. The staff can add names to the register.  

You may need to make an appointment for you or your loved one to tell the GP that you or they have a learning disability. 

Getting support

If you have questions about learning disabilities, or need support in other ways, you can contact Sense’s Information and advice service. 

You can also find out about the support system in England for children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), and the different systems in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland

To find out about benefits, grants and other financial support you might be entitled to, including help with energy, food, travel and leisure costs, please visit our Benefits and money section.  

Support from Sense

We’re here for people with complex disabilities and their families all over the UK. Get in touch to find out more about the services we offer.

This content was last reviewed in November 2022. We’ll review it again in 2024.