A learning disability affects the way a person learns new things in any area of life, not just at school. Find out how a learning disability can affect someone, and where you can find support.
A learning disability affects the way a person understands information and how they communicate. Around 1.5m people in the UK have one. This means they can have difficulty:
It is thought that up to 350,000 people have severe learning disabilities. This figure is increasing.
A learning disability can be mild, moderate or severe. Some people with a mild learning disability can talk easily and look after themselves, but take a bit longer than usual to learn new skills. Others may not be able to communicate at all and have more than one disability (see Profound and multiple learning disability, below).
A learning disability is not the same as a learning difficulty or mental illness. Consultant paediatrician Dr Martin Ward Platt says: "It can be very confusing," he says, pointing out that the term "learning difficulties" is used by some people to cover the whole range of learning disabilities.
"It is easy to give the impression, by using a term like 'learning difficulties', that a child has less of a disability than they really do," says Dr Ward Platt.
Some children with learning disabilities grow up to be quite independent, while others need help with everyday tasks, such as washing or getting dressed, for their whole lives. It depends on their abilities.
Children and young people with a learning disability may also have special educational needs.
Some learning disabilities are diagnosed at birth, such as Down's syndrome . Others might not be discovered until the child is old enough to talk or walk.
Once your child is diagnosed with a learning disability, your doctor can refer you for any specialist support you may need. You'll begin to get to know the team of professionals who will be involved in your child's care.
Support from professionals – including doctors, speech and language therapists, physiotherapists and educational and clinical psychologists – is available to help individuals live as full and independent a life as possible.
A learning disability happens when a person's brain development is affected, either before they are born, during their birth or in early childhood.
Several factors can affect brain development, including:
Sometimes there is no known cause for a learning disability.
Some conditions are associated with having a learning disability, such as cerebral palsy . This is because people with these conditions are more likely to have one.
Everyone with Down's syndrome, for example, has some kind of learning disability, and so do many people with cerebral palsy. People with autism may also have learning disabilities, and around 30% of people with epilepsy have a learning disability.
A diagnosis of a profound and multiple learning disability (PMLD) is used when a child has more than one disability, with the most significant being a learning disability.
Many children diagnosed with PMLD will also have a sensory or physical disability, complex health needs, or mental health difficulties. People with PMLD need a carer or carers to help them with most areas of everyday life, such as eating, washing and going to the toilet.
If you are looking after a child or adult with PMLD, you can find help and support in Care and support .
Important: Our website provides useful information but is not a substitute for medical advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor when making decisions about your health.