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What is a learning disability? Information for carers

An information leaflet aimed at carers explaining what a learning disability is.

This leaflet may not be reproduced in whole or in part, without the permission of Cumbria, Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust

  • What is a learning disability?

    In the UK, a learning disability involves a significant general impairment in intellectual functioning, and an impairment in at least one area of adaptive behaviour (social functioning). Both impairments must be acquired before adulthood.

    This means that people with a learning disability will have difficulty with:
    • Learning new information, making memories and remembering, understand and problem solving.

    Acquired before adulthood means:
    • The impairments arise before the age of 18, and are often present from birth.

    At least two in every 100 people will have a learning disability.

  • What a learning disability is not

    • It is not an illness – it is a lifelong condition, which means that people will always have some difficulty with learning. However, there is a lot that can be done to help people learn and develop their skills, and lead fulfilling and enjoyable lives.

    • It is not a mental health problem, although some people with a learning disability can develop mental health problems. People with a learning disability are more likely to need help with their mental health, but that does not mean that most do.

    • It is not a learning difficulty (like dyslexia, or dyspraxia) which affects a specific area of learning. School reports and medical records might refer to learning difficulties in some people who actually have a learning disability.

    • It is not autism – some people with a learning disability might have autism as well, but many people with autism do not have intellectual or adaptive behaviour impairment.

  • Levels of learning disability

    • Significant impairments – people whose difficulties are described as ‘mild’ or ‘moderate’ often have a significant impairment of intellectual / adaptive functioning. They may or may not live independently, and may need help some of the time, particularly with finances and complex documentation, such as applying for official documents.

    • Severe impairments – people whose difficulties are described as ‘moderate’, ‘severe’, or ‘profound’ often have severe impairments of intellectual/adaptive functioning. They are less likely to live independently, and are likely to need at least some help in a wide range of areas, such as accessing health and social care, personal care, domestic skills, community access, and managing their finances. They are unlikely to have attended mainstream education.

  • Why might someone not know they have a learning disability?

    Some people might have had difficulty at school, have struggled to get a job, and had difficulties in making and maintaining relationships, but do not receive appropriate levels of support.

    This may be because their families or friends have helped them, or they did not want to be tested in the past, or because their difficulties were put down to other reasons (personality, behaviour problems, mental health issues, etc.). Some people are thought to have a learning difficulty or disability because of a medical opinion that was recorded. This might need to be clarified in order to find the right services for the person.

  • Intellectual Disability

    This is the international term for Learning Disability that is used across the world. It means the same thing as Learning Disability, which is used in the UK. Some organisations in the UK use the term Intellectual Disability, such as The British Psychological Society and The Royal College of Psychiatrists.

  • How we can help

    • Screening
    We ask some questions to help us decide whether someone will need further tests, to see if they have a learning disability. We might check medical or educational records.

    • Adaptive Behaviour Assessment
    This tells us about the skills a person uses to live their life.
    We might ask a trusted person to help us with a questionnaire, or we might ask the person themselves.

    • Assessment of Intellectual Functioning (if necessary)
    This will involve some puzzles and questions, and will produce a ‘standardised’ result, often an IQ (intelligence quotient).

    • A meeting to gain an understanding of the person’s history.

  • If you have any questions or want a referral

    Ask your GP or get in touch with your local Community Learning Disabilities Team:

    • Northumberland: 01670 396 130
    • Gateshead: 0191 478 0650
    • Newcastle: 0191 246 6800
    • Sunderland: 0303 123 1145
    • South Tyneside:
    0191 283 2583
    0191 640 0165

  • Reference

    • British Psychological Society (2015). Guidance on the Assessment and Diagnosis of Intellectual Disabilities in Adulthood. Leicester, UK: BPS.

  • Other formats, references and review

    Further information about the content, reference sources or production of this leaflet can be obtained from the Patient Information Centre. If you would like to tell us what you think about this leaflet please get in touch.

    This information can be made available in a range of formats on request (eg Braille, audio, larger print, easy read, BSL or other languages). Please contact the Patient Information Centre
    Tel: 0191 246 7288

    Published by the Patient Information Centre

    2021 Copyright, Cumbria, Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust

    Ref, PIC/724/0721 July 2021 V3

    www.cntw.nhs.uk Tel: 0191 246 7288

    Review date 2024