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Learning Disability

Understanding and living with a learning disability

a child is drawing/writing on some paper

Learning disabilities are a group of life-long conditions that can affect a person’s intellectual ability in terms of perceiving, thinking, remembering or learning. With the right support, many people with a learning disability lead independent and fulfilling lives.

What is a learning disability?

Many people struggle to understand what a learning disability is and how it can impact someone's day to day life. There are many different types and most of them develop usually before a baby is born or because of a serious illness in childhood. A learning disability can range from mild, to moderate or severe, however many people with a learning disability live independent lives.

As a learning disability is lifelong, factors such as finding it harder than others to learn, communicate and understand can have a significant impact on a person’s life. They can need support with everyday needs such as shopping, travelling and cooking. A learning disability does not stop someone from achieving in life, as people with a learning disability are individuals who want different things in life. Different levels of support are needed depending on the individual, there are many charities and support groups who can offer this care especially Mencap, who envision a world where people with a learning disability are valued equally, listened to and included.

There are 1.4million people in the UK with a learning disability. Charities like Mencap work to support people with a learning disability as well as their families and carers. Change to laws, improving services and access to education and employment is vital to ensure that people with a learning disability can live the way they want.  There is a lot of support from organisations with advice on living independently, getting a job or going to college/university if you have a learning disability.

Types of learning disabilities and conditions

Often, a lot of people end up with more than one diagnosis and have a set of conditions that are unique to them. Some conditions can mean you have a learning disability, but can also have other emotional or physical effects.

Some of the conditions that are associated with a learning disability are:

  • Autism & Asperger’s Syndrome - A lifelong condition that is often referred to as a spectrum or ASD. While autism differs for everyone, common features that may affect the person can include the way they interact in social situations and communication with others. Autism is not a learning disability, but around half of people with Autism may also have a learning disability.  Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism, may also affect the way a person communicates and relates to other people. People with Asperger’s may experience specific learning difficulties, anxiety and other conditions but will not have a learning disability as they often have an average or above average intelligence. Each person with autism is different, some people will need very little extra support whereas other people will need more specialist, possibly 24-hour help. If your son or daughter is diagnosed with Autism during early childhood, often the key is to work out what works for your child. Thinking about support and services for the future is important but there is no right or wrong way of doing things. Some parents decide to plan ahead whereas others find it is best to take life one day at a time - whichever way works best for your family. Diagnosis as an adult is also common, especially in women, as many people have gone through without an autism diagnosis. If you are wondering if you may be autistic, it is up to you whether to seek diagnosis, some people are happy to remain self-diagnosed, however getting a formal diagnosis is possible in adulthood.
  • Cerebral Palsy - A physical condition that affects movement, coordination and posture which is usually diagnosed at birth or during early childhood. Normally caused by an injury to the brain, such as lack of oxygen or illness, before, during or after birth. Cerebral Palsy is not a learning disability, but some people with cerebral palsy might have one. Each individual with cerebral palsy is affected differently, varying from mild to severe. It can a have a physical effect making muscles difficult to move but can also cause speech and language difficulties, seizures or epilepsy. Physiotherapy is often used to improve posture and muscle control, although there is currently no cure. Early diagnosis can help ensure the individual gets the professional support they may need.
  • ‘Challenging behaviour’ - A broad term that is used to describe a person’s behaviour that is found to be challenging to parents, teachers, carers and other professionals. Behaviour is classed as challenging if it is considered harmful to the person and others around them or stops them achieving things such as making friends or doing well at school. It can include physical behavior such as hitting and kicking, throwing, tantrums and even self-harming. It is not a learning disability, but people with a disability are more likely to show this kind of behaviour, as it can be due to to people having difficulty communicating or expressing frustrations. It can also be a sign of pain or discomfort that that person is unable to express in another way.  Contact your GP if you are worried that your child or someone you know is demonstrating challenging behaviour, they will be able to refer you to a psychologist and give support on meeting their needs and help them to express and communicate in other ways.
  • Down’s Syndrome - Caused by an extra chromosome in your cell’s, which normally occurs by chance at the time of conception. People with Down’s Syndrome will often have some level of learning disability and can experience some health problems such as heart problems and difficulties with sight and hearing. The level of ability for each person with Down’s Syndrome will be different, for example, a child with Down’s Syndrome may take a little longer than other children their age to reach certain milestones or develop certain skills, and they may need support for different aspects of their life as an adult, but with the right help and opportunities, can lead a happy and fulfilling life. Increased awareness and better healthcare for people with Down’s Syndrome in recent years have and continue to improve a lot.
  • Fragile X Syndrome - A genetic condition that affects both boys and girls, however commonly more severely affected. It can affect language and emotions, attention and behaviour and social interaction. It is the most common inherited form of learning disability, as nearly all boys who have Fragile X have a learning disability but only a third of girls. It can range from mild to moderate and severe resulting in different levels of support needed for each individual. Fragile X can be diagnosed with a blood test but not through physical features or behaviour. With the right help and support, it is possible for someone with Fragile X to lead a fulfilling life in the way they choose.
  • Global Development Delay - This term is used when a child takes longer than other children their age, to reach development milestones such as learning to walk, talk, learning, movement skills and interaction with others. Someone with Down’s Syndrome or Cerebral Palsy may also have Global Development Delay. The delay in development can be short-term and overcome with support and therapy or in some cases, the delay may be more significant and can result in the child needing ongoing support which could indicate they may also have a learning disability.
  • Williams Syndrome - A rare genetic condition that occurs randomly and affects 1 in 18,000 people in the UK. Williams Syndrome affects everyone differently but many people with the condition will have a learning disability. Often it delays a child’s development meaning they tend to take longer to learn how to walk, talk and develop social skills. Diagnosis can be tricky, it is caused by a piece of missing information in a chromosome, however, a simple blood test can help towards a diagnosis. Some early signs of Williams Syndrome in children can include difficulty feeding and excessive vomiting, low birth weight, trouble sleeping and slow growth. With the right help and support, people with Williams Syndrome can live a happy and fulfilled life.

There are many specialist products on the market that can help make the daily lives of children with a learning disability, easier. From a range of fun activity and sensory toys that can help to stimulate and engage senses, posture seats, walkers and accessories as well as therapy aids to help with positioning, bathing, eating and sleeping.

More information and sources:

Mencap - https://bit.ly/2vNmDRw

Challenging Behaviour Foundation - http://www.challengingbehaviour.org.uk/

NAS - https://bit.ly/2Hu4Vry  

Scope - https://www.scope.org.uk/

Down’s Syndrome Association - https://www.downs-syndrome.org.uk/

Fragile XS- http://www.fragilex.org.uk/

Williams Syndrome Foundation - http://www.williams-syndrome.org.uk