Learning Difficulties/Learning Disabilities


Learning Difficulties/Learning Disability

Learning disability is a result of brain development being affected before or during birth, or in a person’s childhood (up to age 18). It is not an illness and an individual is usually born with the condition (unless an injury to the brain occurred during infancy, childhood or later in life for example a baby who has been shaken. Damage to the brain after age 18 is classified as an ‘acquired brain injury’).

How this may impact on someone’s life:

People with a learning disability may have a range of impairments including sensory, physical, communication, perception and cognitive.

In Valuing People (2001) they describe a ‘learning disability’ as a:

  • Significantly reduced ability to understand new or complex information, to learn new skills
  • Reduced ability to cope independently which starts before adulthood with lasting effects on development.

(Department of Health. Valuing People: A New Strategy for Learning Disability for the 21st Century. 2001)

A learning disability can affect someone in a wide variety of ways. The terms ‘mild’ , ‘severe’ and ‘profound’ learning disability are sometimes used to describe the level of learning disability a person has. The level of impairment differs from one person to another and this determines the type of support an individual needs. Some people are able to function independently or with a small amount of support (e.g. the person may have difficulties in managing their money and bills but not with other aspects of their life). Others with a Learning Disability may have complex needs, sometimes referred to as having ‘profound and multiple learning disabilities’, they may require intensive support for 24 hours a day.

Some children are born with a significant learning difficulty/disability because something affected their development at the foetal stage such as the influence of an illness, accident or drugs/medication taken by the mother. For example:

  • If a mother contracts Rubella or Chicken pox whilst pregnant there is a risk to their unborn child, it may result in the child having physical, sensory and or/learning disabilities.
  • If the mother has an alcohol problem the baby may be born with Foetal Alcohol Syndrome which has a permanent effect on the child’s ability to learn and understand.
  • If the mother has an accident or injury during pregnancy the child’s brain development may be significantly impaired
  • Premature babies deprived of oxygen prior or during birth may consequently have learning disabilities and/or physical impairments as a result. In other children there may be no known or apparent reason.

Use to answer question 9.1a of the Care Certificate

Learning Difficulties/Learning Disabilities continued….

Some syndromes are detectable before a child is born or soon afterwards. If a child is several years old before they show signs of a learning difficulty/disability, parents and carers may find it difficult to get a diagnosis. Some of the better known syndromes that people recognise are Down’s syndrome and Rett syndrome, but there are lots more. Some people may have a syndrome without a name or not know the cause of their learning disability and some adults still remain undiagnosed.

Having a learning disability does not have anything to do with a person’s intelligence. Learning disabilities can affect the brain’s ability to receive, process, analyze, or store information. If a person is unable to understand and process information they can become confused, frustrated and frightened. Certain learning disabilities can affect a person’s ability to concentrate and focus causing their minds to wander.

Many negative attitudes to people with learning disabilities exist within our culture and these developed due to the way in which people were treated in the past. For example: placed in institutions or segregated from the rest of the world. For some people receiving a diagnosis of a learning disability is a relief. For other people, growing up with a learning disability, they can feel a sense of shame and may try to hide or deny their difficulties rather than to risk being incorrectly labelled by others as stupid or lazy.

People with learning difficulties/disabilities may experience some emotional difficulty such as fear which can often be masked by anxiety or anger. Individuals may live in fear of failure, of being found out, of being judged or being rejected. People may also struggle to adjust and adapt to change.

There is also confusion between learning disabilities and mental health problems. Having a learning disability is not the same as having a mental health issue such as depression, anxiety or psychosis. However, people with learning disabilities are at risk of developing mental health issues during their life and should receive the treatment they need.

A diagnosis of Autism or Down’s syndrome does not necessarily mean that the child will have significant impairment. These are spectrum conditions where people may have a mild learning impairment at one extreme of the spectrum, at the other end of the spectrum they may have profound and severe intellectual impairments. For example a person with Asperger’s Syndrome may have average intelligence however their Autism causes them to have difficulties with social functioning and may affect their daily living skills. . People with Autism may receive support from the Learning Disability team but there support needs may be different to the needs of a person with a learning disability.

How to best support a person with a Learning Disability

A learning disability involves a reduced ability to learn new or complex information and skills. Therefore it is essential to work at the Clients’ pace, ensuring they fully understand each stage before moving on.

When staff and professionals have a poor understanding of people with a learning difficulties/disability and poor expectations this is likely to have a negative impact on the person. Though a person may have a significant learning difficulty it is important never to assume that they cannot learn or are unable to make independent choices. People with learning disabilities achieve far more when they are given opportunities to learn in a way that suits them; to take risks and do things in ways which enable them to overcome a barrier to difficulty. For example, a person with a learning disability might not be able to read a 6 digit number but may still be able to use the telephone if it is programmed in a way where they just need to use a couple of keys e.g. # 1

It is important for you to focus on knowing each individual’s particular needs and how best to support them. What may be appropriate for supporting one person with the same condition might not be appropriate for another. Poor, inadequate and inappropriate support is likely to result in the person and/or their family members reaching crises which may be avoidable otherwise. Make sure you follow the Person Centred Support plan to provide the right support and meet an individual’s needs, wishes and preferences.

Staff need to ensure that if a person can make an independent choice and understand the consequences of this choice they should be encouraged and enabled to do this. Staff must never must ensure that they do not reinforce ideas and practices which deprive a person of the same fundamental rights and freedoms that the rest of us enjoy.

There is a high co-morbidity rate between a learning disability and the following conditions: Autism, Epilepsy, Diabetes, Cerebral Palsy and other mental health conditions.


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