A learning disability is a lifelong condition which is not an illness or a disease. There are many possible causes for a learning disability, including medical problems before birth, a difficult birth or a serious illness during early childhood. Learning disability is also associated with different syndromes caused by genetic factors. The most common such syndrome is Down’s Syndrome. Other such syndromes include Fragile X, Prader-Willi Syndrome and Rett Syndrome.
A learning disability is not a mental health problem; neither do less profound learning difficulties like dyslexia constitute a learning disability.
For some people with a learning difficulty it’s not possible to determine the cause of their condition. They often have a non specific diagnosis such as “global developmental delay.”
A learning disability affects a person’s intellectual functioning and sometimes their physical development. It usually has a significant impact on a person’s life, affecting many areas of their development.
People with a learning disability find it harder than others to learn, understand and communicate, so they will need more time and support to learn new skills. The extent to which a person is affected by their learning disability varies, from mild disabilities to much more severe impairments. People with profound and multiple learning disabilities (PMLD) need full-time help with every aspect of their lives, including eating, drinking, washing, dressing and toileting.
As well as difficulties with communication, cognitive and self help skills, people with learning disabilities sometimes find it hard to be flexible and like to stick to routines or interests that they are very familiar with. If you imagine having difficulty processing information about the world around you, coupled with difficulties in communicating and possible physical difficulties in manipulating objects or moving around, it’s not hard to see why you might stick to things or places you liked and felt safe with. The challenges people with learning disabilities face also mean that on occasions it’s hard for them to behave in a socially acceptable way and they may need support in this area.
It’s important to remember that people with learning disabilities are people first, with their distinct personalities, interests, skills and abilities. With the right support and opportunities, people with learning disabilities can build on their strengths, learn new skills and lead fulfilled lives.
Children with learning disabilities often benefit from therapies such as speech therapy, music therapy, physiotherapy and occupational therapy. Some will manage in mainstream schools with specialist support; for others a special school will provide a more appropriate education. Learning will have to be broken down into smaller steps and very often communication, speech and interaction will be key areas of focus in learning. People with learning disabilities may use alternative or augmentative forms of communication, such as signing or picture symbols.
As they grow up people with learning disabilities should have access to a range of further education and training courses, so that they can move into appropriate employment of their choice. The level of support a person with a learning disability will need in adult life will depend on the nature of their disability and to what extent they are affected by their disability.
What is important at any stage is to help the person to build on their strengths, while at the same time addressing their needs.
Some useful organisations:
Mencap – www.mencap.org.uk
BILD – www.bild.org.uk (British Institute of Learning Disability)
Cerebral palsy is not a learning disability, but many people with cerebral palsy also have a learning disability. It is a physical condition that affects the person’s movement and control of their body, caused by a part of the brain that has not developed properly either before birth or during early childhood. There are several different types of cerebral palsy, depending on which parts of the brain have been damaged. Some people are severely affected, while in others it is barely noticeable.
Epilepsy is one of the most common conditions affecting the brain. It is not a learning disability but, according to Mencap statistics, 30% of people with a learning disability also have epilepsy. People with epilepsy have seizures when the way their brain works becomes disrupted. Most seizures are sudden and short-lived, lasting a matter of seconds or minutes, and aren’t dangerous to the person having them.
Autism and Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASD)
Autism is a developmental disorder that affects these three key areas:
- Social relationships
- Social communication
- Social understanding and imagination
The condition is described as a “spectrum” as people can be mildly autistic or extremely affected by the condition. The National Autistic Society suggests that autistic spectrum disorder touches the lives of some 500,000 families in the UK.
Autism is a lifelong disability that affects the way a person communicates and relates to people and the world around them. Although autism is not a learning disability, people with autism often have some degree of learning disability, ranging from mild to severe.
People with autism have difficulty with:
- forming relationships with other people and developing appropriate social skills
- communication skills. They may have difficulty with speech and may find it difficult to understand gesture, body language and facial expressions.
- using their imagination – some people have difficulty understanding abstract ideas, or other people’s points of view. People with autism often have very specific interests and like fixed routine.
As with a learning disability, people can have mild, moderate or severe autism, so some people will be able to live fairly independently with only a bit of support while others may require lifelong, specialist support. However, with the right sort of support all people with autism can, and do, learn and develop.
Asperger’s syndrome is regarded as part of the autistic spectrum as people with the condition also experience difficulties in the three key areas outlined above. They do not have any cognitive impairment, and are often of above average intelligence. This means that they do not have a learning disability if one defines it in the traditional sense of someone who has an IQ of below 70 on the Weschler Adult Intelligence Scale. (World Health Organisation definition of learning disability.) However, because of the difficulties people with Aspergers Syndrome experience in the areas of social communication, social skills and flexibility, they often find learning, particularly in group settings, challenging and stressful, and may find coping independently difficult in later life.
It is impossible to provide detailed information on individual learning disabilities in an introductory page. However, there are support organisations for most conditions, who provide information online, in booklet form or via phone help lines. The easiest thing to do is to “google” the condition you are interested in.
Some other useful organisations:
National Autistic Society – www.nas.org.uk
Unique – www.rarechromo.org (Support & Information for people who have a rare
Bibic – www.bibic.org.uk (British Institute for Brain Injured Children)
Cerebra – www.cerebra.org.uk (Supports brain injured children & young people.)