Understanding Learning Disabilities

Understanding Learning Disabilities

Learning disabilities is an umbrella term that covers several different types. Not only that, but each individual can experience the disability differently. For those reasons, it’s essential to have a broader understanding of what learning disabilities include, how they manifest and how you can support them.

Read on to learn more about learning disabilities in adults and children.

Table of Content

What Are Learning Disabilities?

A learning disability is a condition that impacts an individual’s ability to learn new skills or knowledge. It could affect memory, the ability to process information, speaking, and literacy.

As we never stop learning throughout our life, a learning disability affects someone from childhood through adulthood. However, with support, individuals can live full and independent lives.

No matter the type of learning disability, it can affect people differently, from mild to moderate or severe. Some people have PMLD or a profound and multiple learning disability, meaning their mobility and ability to communicate might be affected. In these cases, their care needs will be complex.

What Are the Types of Learning Disabilities?

People with learning disabilities often have a condition that fits into one of three categories. They can be prenatal, perinatal, and postnatal. Whether the cause comes from before birth, during birth, or after, learning disabilities are just one part of the condition. 

As you’ll see from the examples below, these conditions aren’t synonymous with learning disabilities. However, many people do experience them due to their syndrome, disorder, or illness.

Down Syndrome

Down Syndrome occurs due to an extra chromosome. The consequences include physical differences, a greater risk of other conditions, and mild to severe learning disabilities.

Just as each person is different, each child with the condition will develop differently. Some will need extra support only when learning, whereas others might need support with particular daily tasks.

Rett Syndrome

Rett Syndrome, which is more common in females, is a developmental and neurological condition. While initial development may progress without any issues, the condition can cause the progressive loss of physical and mental skills as time passes.

Autism Spectrum Disorder

Autism on its own is not a learning disability, but around 50% of people with the disorder have varied abilities to learn and understand new information. It’s a neurological disorder and, as the name suggests, can be at the mild, moderate, or severe end of the spectrum. 

Cerebral Palsy

Like autism, cerebral palsy is not a learning disability. It’s caused by damage to the brain. Due to the nature of the condition, around half of the people living with it experience physical and learning disabilities.


Meningitis is an example of a postnatal cause of learning disabilities. The bacterial infection causes inflammation in the brain, which can have short-term and long-term effects. These include difficulties with memory, planning, concentration, or reduced intellectual capacity.

Brain Trauma

A brain injury can cause brain cells or neural pathways to die. The location of the injury may cause a reduced ability to function physically or mentally.

Since the brain controls many functions, learning disabilities will be different for each individual. In these cases, the disability might remain, but it might also be possible to recover from the trauma.

Learning Difficulties

Learning difficulties or learning problems are separate from disabilities. They typically describe challenges with one particular aspect of learning. They include:

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) - a short attention span and difficulties concentrating.

Dyscalculia - difficulties with math, numbers, and potential activities like telling the time and following directions.

Dysgraphia - difficulties writing words or letters in the correct order or a straight line.

Dyslexia - difficulties reading and writing, particularly the connection of verbal sounds to written text.

Diagnosis of Learning Disabilities

A child with a learning disability could display the first signs in their early years. A doctor or health worker might notice them. We all develop at different rates, which means not every child with learning disabilities gets diagnosed early. 

School-age children might show frustration and challenges with processing new information or meeting common learning milestones. Education providers or parents might spot these signals, which could lead to investigation and a diagnosis. 

Those with learning disabilities from birth might only receive a diagnosis later in life, particularly with mild autism. It could mean that an individual has had to find their own ways of adapting without support. 

Children and adults with learning disabilities from a postnatal cause might only receive a diagnosis after their initial recovery from the illness or trauma. Our understanding and ability to recognise learning disabilities are improving with research and education.

Supporting Learning Disabilities

People with learning disabilities could require help in numerous situations. Adaptations might be necessary at home, at school,  at work, or for certain interactions outside of the home. Learning disability education plays a key role in child development.

Accommodating learning disabilities can take various forms, depending on the nature of the condition and the environment. Below, you’ll see five crucial areas to consider when supporting a child with learning disabilities.

1. Communication

Whether in a group setting or a one-to-one scenario, it’s essential to engage and interact. You’ll likely need to adapt your communication style for a particular learning disorder. Finding out more from parents or carers could help you to choose the best approach.

Some children won’t respond to questions well; others might need direct eye contact to form a bond that allows communication. If it’s your first meeting, a clear and friendly introduction can set the right tone. Ensure that you’re close enough so that you can speak at normal volume. Plus, use positive body language and facial expressions to support your meaning. 

2. Activities

There are many types of learning and routes to knowledge and understanding. When planning activities around reading, writing, or speaking, you’ll need to be flexible and use several materials.

For example, if part of the activity requires motor skills, which is too challenging for a child, involve a parent or provide support yourself by helping with the motions. Try out different methods for providing instructions and engaging, too. It could involve music and singing, colours and materials with different textures, or images instead of words.

3. Environment

Children with learning disabilities need to feel safe and secure in their environment, as we all do. Before you start an interaction, consider the space you’re using. Is the space warm and comfortable, and are there loud noises and distractions? Adjust the setting and the activities to put the child at ease.

Observing a child with learning difficulties is essential throughout your time supporting them. You’ll learn a lot about how they react in certain circumstances and where they need help. Remember that the child might not be able to express discomfort or frustration. Looking for signs can help remedy issues earlier.

4. Stimulation

While overstimulation isn’t pleasant, the right level can be a crucial part of learning disabilities education. It allows a child to develop and reach their full potential. Involving a child in even the smallest activities can help build a bond, get them active, and provide stimulation through more than just talking and listening.

Explaining an activity from start to finish in simple language can help engagement. Incorporating various tasks using colour, sound, light, and touch can help. It’s vital to play to a child’s strengths instead of only focusing on the more challenging aspects.

5. Adaptation

Special educational adaptations might be required to help a child with a learning disability develop. The adaptations will likely focus on a specific learning disability, but there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. 

Simple adjustments to improve well-being and mental health can have a significant impact. For example, having a quiet space for a child to retreat to and calm down is beneficial.

When planning activities, plan for some one-on-one support. Before starting, have at least two or three versions in mind. That way, you can use the approach that engages the child most.

Supporting adults with learning disabilities will follow similar principles but will likely have more nuance. Support and care should be person-centred, as everyone you support will be different.

Having an understanding of learning disabilities, by reading through pieces like ours, is a great first step. Be inclusive, understand that adults are still able to learn and progress and should be treated with dignity and respect.

There are many fantastic opportunities available in the learning disability space. Find your perfect Support Worker role today.