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What does learning disability mean? A guide for parents and carers

What is a learning disability?

Illustration of person looking thoughtful with a question mark above their headSomeone who has a learning disability will:

  • Need more time to understand new or complicated information and learn new skills.
  • Need more support to learn everyday activities such as household tasks, managing money, and communicating without help from someone else.
  • A learning disability starts during childhood and affects someone for their whole life.


How common are learning disabilities?

Around 2.5 percent of people have a learning disability, so there are many children and families with similar experiences.

What different words are used to describe a learning disability?                                             

  • Intellectual disability means the same learning disability.
  • Learning difficulty is usually used by schools or colleges to describe problems with one area of learning such as reading, writing, or maths. Learning disability and learning difficulty is not the same.
  • Global developmental delay is used to describe when children are slower to meet important developmental milestones such as walking or talking. It is used when a child is under 5 years old. Sometimes, this will mean they develop a learning disability.

What may someone with a learning disability need support with?

  • Teaching new skills may take time and need practice. For example, learning to tie shoelaces or using the bus.
  • Understanding abstract concepts means thinking about ideas that are not visual or concrete. For example, time, words such as later or soon, and feelings.
  • Understanding and making sense of what is being said and being able to say what they want, need, think, and feel.
  • Problem-solving, including weighing up information and making decisions.

Illustration of two people cooking together

Rate of learning and development in a child with a learning disability

Like all children and young people, children with learning disabilities will continue to learn throughout their childhood, but at a slower rate than other children.

A child with a learning disability will not reach every developmental milestone at the same age as other children. They may never reach some milestones fully.

With the right support, they will still make progress and achieve. The level of support a child needs depends on different things, such as the level of their learning disability.

Full and meaningful lives

Adults with learning disabilities can live full and meaningful lives. They can have independence and choice over how they live, have friends and be important to others, with meaningful activity during the day, including employment.

Illustration of 3 young people sitting together as friends

Further resources

Local Support

Sheffield Special Educational Needs and Disabilities Information, Advice, & Support Service (SENDIASS)
Telephone: 0114 273 6009
Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SheffieldSENDIAS/
Email: ssendias@sheffield.gov.uk

Sheffield Parent Carer Forum 
Independent group of parents and carers of children and young people with disabilities & special educational needs.
Telephone: 0300 321 4721

National Support

British Institute of Learning Disabilities
Contains useful information to support people with a learning disability and their families.

Leading UK charity for people with learning disabilities.

Foundation for people with learning disabilities
Part of the Mental Health Foundation.

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Please note: this is a generic information sheet relating to care at Sheffield Children’s NHS FT. These details may not reflect treatment at other hospitals. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professionals’ instructions. If this resource relates to medicines, please read it alongside the medicine manufacturer’s patient information leaflet. If this information has been translated into another language from English, efforts have been made to maintain accuracy, but there may still be some translation errors. If you are unsure about any of the guidance in this resource or have specific questions about how it relates to your child, always ask your healthcare professional for further advice.

Resource number: LD2

Resource Type: Article

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