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Detecting learning disabilities

Having a learning disability means having a reduced intellectual ability that may cause problems with everyday activities.

A learning disability can make it longer for a person to learn something new. They may need support to help develop new skills, to understand complex information as well as interacting with other people.

Around 1.5 million people in the UK have some type of learning disability.

Learning disability is often confused with learning difficulty or mental health problems. The charity Mencap says dyslexia, for example, is a learning difficulty. Unlike a learning disability, dyslexia does not affect a person's intellect. Mental health problems may be overcome with appropriate treatment, but that is not the case with a learning disability.

People with conditions like Down’s syndrome and forms of autism can also have learning disabilities. Nearly a third of people with epilepsy have some form of learning disability.

The severity of a learning disability can cover a broad spectrum and each person's problems and needs will be different.

Most people with a learning disability can lead independent lives, given the appropriate support.

A learning disability may be classed as mild, moderate or severe.

Mencap says a person with a mild learning disability may need support for something specific like applying for a job. However, full time care may be needed for people with a severe or profound learning disability.

Causes of learning disabilities

The exact case of a person's learning disability may not be known – but causes may include:

  • Mum's illness during pregnancy
  • Restricted oxygen to the baby's brain during birth
  • Genetic abnormalities
  • Inherited learning disability
  • Early childhood illnesses, such as meningitis.


Diagnosing learning disabilities

Some tests may be done during pregnancy if there are concerns about a baby's development, including amniocentesis and chorionic villus sampling (CVS).

A diagnosis could also be made after a baby is born, for example if there are concerns about the risk of a learning disability from a problem during birth. Specialist assessments may be carried out if a baby has developmental delays and is later than most other children reaching certain milestones.

Getting a diagnosis of learning disability can be distressing, and parents may need professional and emotional support to help cope and plan ahead for the baby's specific needs.

Treating learning disability

As a child with a learning disability grows up, support will be needed from a range of health professionals. Every child's needs will be different. Living as full and independent a life as possible is the goal of this support from the family GP, specialist paediatricians, speech and language therapists, physiotherapists, educational and clinical psychologists.

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WebMD Medical Reference

Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks on October 27, 2016

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