Definitions of Learning Disability

A learning disability affects the way a person learns new things in any area of life, not just at school. Find out how a learning disability can affect someone, and where you can find support.

A learning disability affects the way a person understands information and how they communicate. Around 1.5m people in the UK have one. This means they can have difficulty:

  • understanding new or complex information
  • learning new skills
  • coping independently

It is thought that up to 350,000 people have severe learning disabilities. This figure is increasing.

Mild, moderate or severe learning disability

A learning disability can be mild, moderate or severe. Some people with a mild learning disability can talk easily and look after themselves, but take a bit longer than usual to learn new skills. Others may not be able to communicate at all and have more than one disability (see Profound and multiple learning disability, below).

A learning disability is not the same as a learning difficulty or mental illness. Consultant paediatrician Dr Martin Ward Platt says: "It can be very confusing," he says, pointing out that the term "learning difficulties" is used by some people to cover the whole range of learning disabilities.

"It is easy to give the impression, by using a term like 'learning difficulties', that a child has less of a disability than they really do," says Dr Ward Platt.

Some children with learning disabilities grow up to be quite independent, while others need help with everyday tasks, such as washing or getting dressed, for their whole lives. It depends on their abilities.

Children and young people with a learning disability may also have special educational needs. Find out more about education and how you can request a statement.

Definitions of learning difficulty

All these definitions include recognition of the need for further help with self-help skills and personal care.

Severe Learning Difficulty (SLD)

Pupils with severe learning difficulties have significant intellectual or cognitive impairments. This has a major effect on their ability to participate in the school curriculum without support. They may also have associated difficulties in mobility and coordination, communication and perception and the acquisition of self-help skills. Pupils with SLD will need support in all areas of the curriculum. They may also require teaching of self-help, independence and social skills. Some pupils may use sign and symbols but most will be able to hold simple conversations and gain some literacy skills. Their attainments may be within the upper P scale range (P4-P8) for much of their school careers (that is below level 1 of the National Curriculum).

Profound and Multiple Learning Difficulty (PMLD)

Pupils with profound and multiple learning difficulties have severe and complex learning needs, in addition they have other significant difficulties, such as physical disabilities or a sensory impairment. Pupils require a high level of adult support, both for their learning needs and also for personal care. They are likely to need sensory stimulation and a curriculum broken down into very small steps. Some pupils communicate by gesture, eye pointing or symbols, others by very simple language. Their attainments are likely to remain in the early P scale range (P1-P4) throughout their school careers (that is below level 1 of the National Curriculum).

Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

Pupils with ASD cover the full range of ability and the severity of their impairment varies widely. Some pupils may also have learning disabilities or other difficulties, making identification difficult.

ASD recognises there are a number of sub-groups within the spectrum of autism.

Pupils with ASD find it difficult to:

●     understand and use non-verbal and verbal communication

●     understand social behaviour, which affects their ability to interact with children and adults

●     think and behave flexibly, which may be shown in restricted, obsessional or repetitive activities.

Complex Learning Difficulties and Disabilities

Children and young people with Complex Learning Difficulties and Disabilities (CLDD) have conditions that co-exist. These conditions overlap and interlock creating a complex profile. The co-occurring and compounding nature of complex learning difficulties requires a personalised learning pathway that recognises children and young people’s unique and changing learning patterns. Children and young people with CLDD present with a range of issues and combination of layered needs – e.g. mental health, relationships, behavioural, physical, medical, sensory, communication and cognitive. They need informed specific support and strategies which may include transdisciplinary input to engage effectively in the learning process and to participate actively in classroom activities and the wider community.

Their attainments may be inconsistent, presenting an atypical or uneven profile. In the school setting, learners may be working at any educational level, including the National Curriculum and P scales. This definition could also be applicable to learners in Early Years and post-school settings.

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