Learning difficulties

Written by Katherine Nicholls
Katherine Nicholls
Counselling Directory Content Team

Last updated 14th March 2024 | Next update due 14th March 2027

A learning difficulty impacts the way someone learns. There are several different types of learning difficulties and someone may have one, or a combination. Here we'll explore learning difficulties in more detail, including how they can affect mental health and how therapy can help.

What is a learning difficulty?

Someone who has learning difficulties may find it hard to learn things the same way others do. This is because the brain receives and processes information differently. Often, learning difficulties exist on a scale from mild to severe. This will depend on how much the difficulty affects someone's day-to-day life.

A learning difficulty cannot be cured, but there is support available to help those affected succeed in life. There are also specific learning difficulties, which are lifelong conditions that have developed in childhood. These include:

  • Dyslexia – primarily affects reading, spelling and writing, but may also affect memory, sequencing, spoken language, motor skills and organisation.
  • Dyscalculia – affects the ability to understand and carry out basic mathematical processes.
  • ADHD – attention deficit hyperactive disorder – affects the ability to concentrate and focus on one thing.

What is the difference between a learning difficulty and a learning disability?

While some people use the two terms interchangeably, there is a difference between learning disabilities and learning difficulties. 

The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) (2001) defines a learning disability in the following way:

"A significantly reduced ability to understand new or complex information, to learn new skills (impaired intelligence), with a reduced ability to cope independently (impaired social functioning), which started before adulthood."

Those with a learning difficulty will not find their general intelligence (IQ) affected, unlike those with learning disabilities. It is possible for someone to have both a learning difficulty and a learning disability.

Learn more about learning disabilities.

Signs of a learning difficulty

Learning difficulties can show up in several ways and can differ from person to person. Here are some general signs to keep in mind:

  • not being able to concentrate for long periods
  • trouble remembering things, short and long-term
  • sequencing problems – remembering the correct order of a story
  • difficulties reading and/or writing
  • difficulties with social interaction
  • tripping over things, excessive clumsiness

These are traits many people experience from time to time, however, if they become prominent or continuous, this may be an indication of a learning difficulty.

As these difficulties affect the way we learn, signs are often spotted in school years. If you are worried about a child, visit our children's learning difficulties page. Sometimes these signs aren't spotted in school, and people discover later in life that they have a learning difficulty.

What causes a learning difficulty?

Currently, we do not know what exactly causes learning difficulties. It's thought that there are a range of factors involved. The way the brain develops, genetic influences and environmental influences, for example, could have roles to play.

If something happens to impact brain development, such as premature birth or a head injury, this could affect our ability to learn. If parents have learning difficulties, it may be more likely for their child to have one too. It's unclear as to whether this is because of genetic factors or the way children learn from their carers. 

When is the right time to seek help?

It can be hard to differentiate between struggling with the normal learning process and struggling to the point of having a learning difficulty and needing additional support.

If you are finding your day-to-day life is impacted, and feel your quality of life could be improved with support, visit your GP. They will be able to discuss your concerns and help you navigate the route to getting a diagnosis. This can help you understand your particular learning difficulty and what support is available.

Learning difficulties and mental health

Having a learning difficulty is not the same as having a mental health problem. However, those with learning difficulties may face barriers others do not, and this can impact mental health. During education, having a learning difficulty can make things harder. You may feel behind others in your class or even experience bullying. This can lead to feelings of frustration, sadness and a poor self-image.

Beyond education, learning difficulties can impact work and relationships. If you were not given the right support at a young age, the struggles you faced may have impacted your self-esteem. This can follow into adulthood and can increase the risk of developing anxiety and depression. 

Understanding how your learning difficulty affects the way you interact with the world can be a great first step. This can help you recognise that your brain just works differently from other people's and that there's nothing wrong with this. You may be offered medication to support you or access to specialist doctors for more advice. Speaking with other people who have the same difficulty can also help.

Speaking to a therapist who works in this area can be another tool to help you manage any related mental health issues.

Therapists who can help with learning difficulties

How can therapy help adults with learning difficulties?

If you have been diagnosed with a learning difficulty as an adult, you may be feeling a range of emotions. Relief at knowing, anger at not knowing sooner, fear of what comes next. All of this is to be expected and it can be helpful to talk your feelings through with a mental health professional. 

They can help you unpick what your diagnosis means to you and process childhood experiences. If you're experiencing feelings of anxiety and depression, and suspect your learning difficulty has a role to play, working with a therapist can also help. Together you can understand any links between your mental health and your learning difficulty and find ways of coping.

If you haven't been diagnosed or are on a waiting list, therapy could also support you. Here you may discuss the diagnosis itself or whether you are happy to self-diagnose. You can identify what you're struggling with now and address it while waiting for your official assessment. 

The type of therapy you get will depend on your personal circumstances and what you're looking for help with. Often, solution-focused counselling is helpful for those who are aware of their difficulties and what they want support for. Group therapy may also be recommended, helping you meet others experiencing similar difficulties. Arts therapies could also be worth exploring if you find it difficult to express yourself through talking. 

What should I be looking for in a counsellor or psychotherapist?

There are currently no laws stating what training and qualifications a counsellor must have to support someone with a learning difficulty. Counsellors working with people with learning disabilities may have to adjust the way they work, for example including more written or visual information. Therefore, it is advised that you seek help from a professional who has specific training and experience in this area.

Know that wherever you are in your experience, support is available.

Further help

Search for a counsellor
Trusted Information Creator - Patient Information Forum

Trust our content

We are a PIF TICK 'trusted information creator'. This means you can be assured that what you are reading is evidence-based, understandable, jargon-free, up-to-date and produced to the best possible standard.

All content was accurate when published.

Would you like to provide feedback on our content?
Tell us what you think

Please note we are unable to provide any personal advice via this feedback form. If you do require further information or advice, please search for a professional to contact them directly.

You appear to have an ad blocker enabled. This can cause issues with our spam prevention tool. If you experience problems, please try disabling the ad blocker until you have submitted the form.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA, the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

Find a therapist dealing with learning difficulties

All therapists are verified professionals

All therapists are verified professionals