Learning Disabilities

Many children and adults throughout the UK struggle with learning problems. These difficulties can affect school, work, and family life. If you suspect that you, your child, or a loved one may have learning challenges, you may be feeling frightened, frustrated, and overwhelmed. Coping with symptoms of learning problems can be very stressful, but you are not alone, and many support services are available. The information below will outline the major types of learning disabilities and how to arrange an assessment. Information about support services for specific learning disabilities is located at the bottom of this page.

What are learning disabilities?

Learning disabilities are a collection of conditions that affect an individual’s information processing and the way in which he or she learns, understands, and communicates. Every person with a learning disability will be affected differently, and diagnoses can be classed as mild, moderate, or severe.

The conditions often involve specific academic subject areas (such as reading or maths), language, visual or speech considerations, and motor, spatial, or organisational concerns. Individuals with learning disabilities can learn in an effective way, they just use different, atypical methods that are often unique to their situation. When speaking about learning problems, people often use the terms learning disability and learning disorder to mean the same thing. In fact, these terms have very different meanings. Learning disability is the term that is used for an official diagnosis made by a doctor or psychologist. Learning disorder refers to the specific problems an individual has in a given academic area.

Learning disabilities are often diagnosed when children are school-age, though some people are diagnosed with learning disabilities as adults. An estimated 350,000 people in the UK have learning disabilities, and this number is increasing.

Today, learning disabilities are often referred to simply as learning difficulties or learning differences.

What causes learning disabilities?

Maternal illness during pregnancy and problems during a baby’s birth (such as a lack of oxygen) are thought to contribute to learning disabilities, and there is likely genetic involvement, too. Illnesses during a baby’s first few years of life, such as meningitis, can contribute. Sometimes, no identifiable cause can be found.

What are the major learning disability categories?

Let’s have a look at some of the more common learning disabilities, listed by the subject or area of concern involved. There are many less common learning difficulties that also fall under these categories, but all share similar symptoms with the major ones listed here.

Reading, Writing, and Mathematics Disorders

These disorders affect an individual’s performance in specific academic subjects and are most commonly detected in childhood.

Dyslexia (Reading Disorder): People with dyslexia have trouble with reading, spelling, and writing. They may reverse letters when reading certain words—they may see “God” when the word is “dog,” for example. Dyslexic individuals benefit from hands-on demonstrations and visual aids in their learning, and they have a much higher intelligence than their written work demonstrates.

Dysgraphia (Writing Disorder): Dysgraphia is the umbrella term for all disorders which impact writing ability. Individuals with dysgraphia may struggle with handwriting and letter spacing, holding a pencil, writing ideas down quickly, and writing on a line.

Dyscalculia (Maths Disorder): This disorder affects the individual’s numerical reasoning. Organizing numbers, memorizing mathematical facts, positioning problems on a page, and understanding general mathematics concepts may be difficult.

Speech and Communication Disorders

Autistic Spectrum Disorders: While not technically learning disabilities, these conditions can affect many aspects of an individual’s life, including social skills and the person’s ability to learn. The condition ranges from mild to severe. People with autistic spectrum disorders have trouble reading nonverbal cues, making eye contact, and experience trouble with reading sensory input. They may be hypersensitive to certain textures or temperatures and may engage in repetitive behaviours such as arm flapping or rocking.
Down’s Syndrome: As with autism, people with Down’s have a wide range of symptoms. While all will have some degree of learning disorder, it can sometimes be very mild, with many Down’s individuals even taking GCSE’s and living independently, while others have greater impairment that requires special care. People with Down’s may have sight and hearing difficulties, and these can impact on learning, too.

Attention Disorders

ADD and ADHD: Attention deficit disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder are characterized by struggling with time management, short attention spans, and difficulties controlling impulsive behavior, with or without hyperactivity. This disorder is commonly diagnosed in adulthood, as well as in childhood.

How are learning problems diagnosed?

If you’re concerned that you or your child may have symptoms of a learning disability, there are many ways you can arrange an assessment. From 1st September 2014, a new system was put in place to ensure all children’s special educational needs are met. Each nursery or school will have a dedicated SENCO (Special Educational Needs Co-ordinator) who can help in arranging assessments, forming and implementing action plans. Often, your SENCO can arrange for assessments to be completed by school psychologists, especially for subject-specific disorders and sometimes for attention disorders, too. For communication disorders like autism and Down’s, assessment can be done by a GP, and attention disorders can also be diagnosed by a psychologist. If you wish, you can arrange a private GP or psychologist assessment, depending on the condition. Assessments will be done with questionnaires and observation. In the case of children, parents and teachers will each complete forms with their observations of the child’s symptoms; the child will also be observed. For adults, consultation with a GP or psychologist is typically all it takes to receive a diagnosis.

What is the treatment for learning disabilities?

For many learning difficulties, support and modifications made by your child’s teacher are all that is needed. Based on your child’s individual assessment, arrangements may be made for various modifications, including extra time on certain assignments, the use of special software or books, or the allocation of a dedicated support person for your child.

For some learning disabilities, particularly those related to attention (i.e. ADHD), medication can sometimes be useful. Your GP can advise you on which medicines may benefit you.

For autism and related learning difficulties, a support team of GPs, social workers, and school psychologists may be useful.

If needed, your local council can provide information on disability allowance and other benefits to which you may be entitled. They can also help with long term care and special accommodation, if needed.

Where can I find support?

In the first instance, your GP, SENCO, or psychologist can meet with you and provide suitable advice for your unique situation. If you need additional support in your area or want to do your own research online, the following organisations can help.

Contact a Family www.cafamily.org.uk

This organisation provides support and services for children with learning difficulties and their families. They provide medical and legal information, assessment and treatment resources, and information on local support groups in your area.

Mencap www.mencap.org.uk

Mencap offers a wealth of resources, including support with finding work, housing, and leisure activities. They have a dedicated phone support line on 0808 808 1111 and can give you further advice over the phone, including info about local Mencap support services.

British Institute of Learning Disabilities www.bild.org.uk

This is a membership organisation that helps businesses and workplaces equip and train their staff to provide safe spaces where workers with learning disabilities are supported with respect and dignity. They have over 40 years of experience and can assist individuals, too.




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