Learning Disability

Also known as: Intellectual Disability


Learning disability is usually identified in early childhood following concerns about slower than expected development. People with a learning disability tend to take longer to learn and may need support to develop new skills, understand complex information and interact with other people. Often there are problems with dressing, washing, other aspects of self-care and socialising as well as difficulty learning at school.

Learning disabilities are many and varied. The terms ‘mild’, ‘moderate’, ‘severe’ and ‘profound’ are sometimes used to signify degree of difficulty experienced. With the right medical, psychological, educational and social support most people with a learning disability can lead independent lives.


Medical text rewritten August 2012 by Professor J Turk, Professor of Developmental Psychiatry, St George’s and the Institute of Psychiatry, University of London and Consultant Child and Adolescent Neuropsychiatrist, Child and Adolescent Mental Health Developmental Neuropsychiatry Services, South London and Maudsley Foundation NHS Trust, London, UK.

How is it diagnosed?

Usually a learning disability is suspected by a health visitor, community midwife, nursery teacher or children’s doctor (paediatrician). They may test the ability of the child and order medical investigations to ascertain the level and nature of the learning disability and establish a cause. Sometimes the learning disability is identified by a child psychiatrist, clinical psychologist, or educational psychologist if the individual is at school. Parents who are concerned their child may have a learning disability should request an assessment by a paediatrician or psychologist.

How is it treated?

Learning disability cannot be cured, but with appropriate supports individuals can go on to lead independent and fulfilling lives. Support may comprise practical aids and equipment to learn new skills or help from family, friends, teachers and volunteers to manage daily life activities. See the “Is there support?” section for organisations that offer support and information. These organisations may run local support groups for people with learning disability and their families. Some individuals with learning disability go on to live in assisted accommodation.

People affected by learning disability are at higher risk of developing mental health problems, such as depression (see entry Depression in Children and Young People) and less often schizophrenia. Assessment and treatment should be offered as necessary. The risks of these conditions developing can be minimised by providing the right psychological, educational and social supports early on.

Children with learning disability may require a statement of special education needs to get extra support in school. This is possible within mainstream schools, though some children benefit from learning in a special school. In almost all instances the child can attend school on a daily basis rather than having to board.

Families with a child who has learning disability may be entitled to supports including financial assistance and help from social services – see our advice and support section. Parents will often wish to establish their legal rights as guardians for their children with learning disability once they have grown up, for example through a lasting power of attorney arrangement.

Inheritance patterns and prenatal diagnosis

Inheritance patterns
These will depend upon the underlying cause. If the cause of learning disability is thought to be genetic further information and support is available through regional genetic centres.

Prenatal diagnosis
This may be possible if the underlying genetic cause of the learning disability is known.

Is there support?

ENABLE Scotland

ENABLE Direct: 0300 0200 101
Email: enabledirect@enable.org.uk
Website: enable.org.uk

The Organisation is a Registered Charity in Scotland No. SC009024. It provides information and support for people who have learning disabilities and their families, and runs the helpline ENABLE Direct. 

Group details last updated December 2014.


Helpline: 0808 808 1111
Email: help@mencap.org.uk
Website: mencap.org.uk

The Organisation is a Registered Charity in England and Wales No. 222377. It provides information and support for children and adults with learning disabilities and their families, and a range of services across England, Wales and Northern Ireland. 

Group details last updated December 2014.

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