Learning disabilities

Last updated 14th August 2023 | Next update due 13th August 2026

There are approximately 1.5 million people in the UK with a learning disability. A learning disability affects how someone manages everyday activities and learns new things. Here we learn more about what a learning disability is and how counselling can help.

What is a learning disability?

A learning disability can be described as:

  • a state of arrested or incomplete development of the mind
  • significant impairment of intellectual functioning
  • significant impairment of adaptive/social functioning

As each individual is unique, learning disabilities are different for everyone. Learning disabilities affect a person’s intellectual ability, often needing support to learn new skills and understand more complicated tasks or information. With the right support, the majority of people with learning disabilities can lead independent lives in the UK. How much help that person needs varies depending on how severe their learning disability is. Many people who have a learning disability can work and have fulfilling relationships. 

Profound and multiple learning disability (PMLD) is when someone has a profound learning disability (and other disabilities) that prevent them from being independent, such as issues with personal care, hearing, speaking, communication, and moving. 

Children with learning disabilities

Children with learning disabilities find it more difficult to go about daily activities than other children their age. There are roughly 350,000 children with learning disabilities in the UK. In most cases, a child with a learning disability can make progress throughout their early years but at a slower pace. They will need additional support throughout their time in school to make sure they understand to the best of their ability.

It may be obvious to the parent that their child has a learning disability but a formal assessment needs to be made by a trained specialist, such as a paediatrician or educational psychologist. A child may be diagnosed at birth or may need to wait years before receiving a formal diagnosis. If you’re a parent of a child with learning disabilities, you can be assured that your child can lead a fulfilling life with the right level of support.

Different types of learning disabilities

Learning disabilities can range from mild to severe but in every case they are lifelong. It can be more tricky to diagnose a mild learning disability as that person is more likely to manage daily life without too much support. Many people with learning disabilities may have more than one diagnosis, and there are some conditions which mean that person is likely to have a learning disability. Some of the conditions associated with learning disabilities are Down’s Syndrome, Williams syndrome, and Fragile X syndrome.

Differences between learning disabilities and learning difficulties

It's possible for an individual to have both a learning disability and a learning difficulty but there are fundamental differences between them. A learning difficulty doesn’t affect a person’s intellect or the ability to learn life skills, such as jobs around the house. It does affect areas of behaviour and learning, such as reading and writing. Children with learning difficulties may struggle at school, resulting in feelings of low self-esteem and anxiety. Some examples of learning difficulties are attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyspraxia, and dyslexia.

Is autism a learning disability?

Autism is not a learning disability, but many autistic people do have a learning disability. Autism is a developmental disability affecting how a person interacts with the outside world. Common traits include communication difficulties, sensory differences, and a preference for routine. Autism comes under the neurodiversity umbrella, helping people understand that neurodiverse brains work differently.

What causes a learning disability?

Learning disabilities do not develop later in life. They occur when the brain is still developing either before, during, or after birth. Before birth, something may happen to the central nervous system in the uterus. During birth, the baby may not receive enough oxygen or may be born too early. After birth, a learning disability may be caused by an accident, severe head trauma, or seizure.

Genetic influences may also play a part. Certain genes (chemicals in our bodies) may be passed on by parents. This is known as an inherited learning disability. Two of the most common causes of inherited learning disability are Fragile X syndrome and Down’s syndrome. These are not learning disabilities themselves but people who have either condition are likely to have a learning disability too.

Counselling for people with learning disabilities

A learning disability is not a mental health condition but sometimes people with learning disabilities can experience mental health issues. This can often be due to the attitudes and behaviour of others. People with learning disabilities are more vulnerable to abuse, neglect, and hate crimes. A study found that just over half of people with learning disabilities struggle with their mental health. Mental health problems among those with learning disabilities are sometimes left misdiagnosed or overlooked due to a lack of understanding and evidence in this area.

If you have a learning disability or are looking to help someone you know with a learning disability, it is important to look for a professional who has expertise and experience in this area. Counsellors treating people with learning disabilities may have to adjust the way they work, for example including more visual information and potentially being inclusive of a carer.

In his article Working with adults with learning disabilities, counselling psychologist Dr Joshua Bourne talks about getting the balance right between working with the adult and carer as a therapist.

It may be necessary for therapists to think about being inclusive of the carer at times during sessions while maintaining the client's respect to autonomy and right to choose whether the carer can be involved during therapy sessions.

It’s important that people with learning disabilities get the right kind of mental health help to make sure they are included, supported, and celebrated as individuals.

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 counsellor dealing with learning disabilities

All therapists are verified professionals

All therapists are verified professionals