What is meant by learning
||The effects of learning disability
Learning disability used to be known as mental
handicap or mental retardation. Other terms sometimes used are
general or global developmental delay. A child with a
general learning disability finds it more
difficult to learn, understand and do things compared to other
children of the same age. Like all children and young people,
children with learning disabilities continue to progress and learn
throughout their childhood - but more slowly.
The degree of disability can vary greatly.
Some children will never learn to speak and so are likely when they
grow up to need help with looking after themselves - feeding,
dressing or going to the toilet. On the other hand, the disability
may be mild and the child will grow up to become independent.
General learning disability is different from
difficulty which means that the person has
difficulties in one or two areas of their learning, but manages
well in other areas of their development. For example, a child can
have a specific learning difficulty in reading, writing or
understanding what is said to them, but have no problem with
learning skills in other areas of life.
What causes general learning disability?
In many children with general learning
disability, the cause of the disability remains unknown. In some
there may be genetic factors, infection, brain injury or damage
before, at birth or after birth. Examples include Down's syndrome,
Fragile X syndrome and cerebral palsy.
The effects of learning
Children or young people who have a general
learning disability are aware of what goes on around them. However,
their ability to understand and communicate may be limited, and
they can find it hard to express themselves. Speech problems can
make it even harder to make other people understand their feelings
and needs. They can become frustrated and upset by their own
limitations. When they compare themselves to other children, they
can feel sad or angry and think badly of themselves.
For a parent, it can be distressing to find
out that their child has a general learning disability. It may be
hard for them and other members of the family to understand why the
child is like this. It can also be hard to communicate with the
learning disabled child, difficult to manage their behaviour and
hard for other people to understand.
Brothers and sisters may be affected in a
number of ways. They may feel jealous of the attention given to
their disabled brother or sister or embarrassed by their behaviour.
They may even be teased at school. Quite often they can feel
personally responsible for their disabled sibling or their
Learning disability and mental
What can be done to help
A general learning disability is not a mental
illness. However, children with learning disability are more likely
to develop mental health problems, for example anxiety, or have
additional developmental disorders, such as Autism Spectrum
Disorders and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) than
Recognising difficulties in learning
It is important to recognise, as soon as
possible, that a child is learning and developing slowly. It is
only when the problem is recognised that the child and their family
can be offered the help and support they need. The health visitor
plays an important role in recognising slow development in the
years before school.
Child Development Team
As the child gets older, a number of people
can help with the child’s particular needs. They will often work
together in a group known as the Child Development
Team. This team includes specialists such as community
paediatricians, nurses, psychologists and speech therapists. It
sometimes includes a child psychiatrist or other members of the
child and adolescent mental health service
(CAMHS). In some areas, there are special services for children
with learning disabilities (Community Learning Disability Team). If
necessary, a GP can refer the child to one of these specialist
School can be a particular challenge for
children with learning disabilities because of both the learning
and social demands. Local education departments can make special
arrangements to meet the educational needs of each child.
However, there is an expectation that most
children will receive their education in a mainstream inclusive
environment. For example, children who are able to cope comfortably
with other people are likely to attend an ordinary school, but have
special forms of teaching. On the other hand, a child with a more
severe disability may go to a special school.
For some children, a Statement of
Special Educational Needs will need to be prepared.
This sets out what special help the child needs, and takes into
account the views and wishes of the child and their parents.
All educational authorities have a Parent
Partnership Scheme to advise parents on educational provision.
In most areas, there are also other services.
Respite care and holiday play schemes can extend the learning and
social opportunities for the child. Parent support groups can put
families in touch with other people who are coping with similar
problems. The local social services department will be able to
advise, both on these opportunities and on the benefits to which
parents are entitled.
Disability does not stop a child from having a
full and enjoyable life. The aim of all the specialist services is
to help children with a general learning disability to have lives
that are as enjoyable and fulfilling as those of other people.
|Beth's story, aged 15
Beth, a 15 year old girl with moderate Learning Disability
was referred to us by her paediatrician who was concerned for her
mental health. She had deliberately swallowed 2 antacid tablets and
2 diet pills. She had been increasingly aggressive and restless
both at home and school. She was barely sleeping at night, she was
‘talking gibberish’ and very fast, running away and taking her
clothes off inappropriately.
There had been similar episodes in the past
for varying periods but none had been this severe. There was family
history of schizophrenia and bipolar illness.
She was diagnosed as bipolar affective
disorder, which was previously known as ‘manic depression’. She was
started on medication, a mood stabiliser. Beth improved on the
medication. A year later, Beth started becoming more agitated, and
tearful. She had developed an episode of depression and needed an
antidepressant. She has now recovered to her previous self. Beth is
likely to have high and low episodes like these, especially if not
on treatment. She will need to be monitored for a long time.
People with learning disability can have major
mental illness like others. The way they appear to professionals
will be different and they will need to see specialists who will
look at behaviour and recognise any patterns suggestive of a
British Institute of
Learning Disabilities - Contains useful information to
support people with learning disability and their families.
Contact a Family -
offers information and advice for parents of children with any
special needs or disability.
Disability and inclusion - Barnardo's is
committed to the principle of inclusion for disabled children and
works with children from pre-school age to 16 plus.
disabled child matters - Campaign to get rights
and justice for every disabled child.
MENCAP - Leading UK
charity for people with learning disabilities.
Government website for citizens - Contains useful
information regarding special educational needs and navigating
through the statement process.
Trust - A national charity working with children
who have multiple disabilities.
Words - series of picture books for use by people
with learning disabilities to make communication easier and allow
Mental Health Needs of Children and Young
People with Learning Disabilities, Pavilion Press, 2010.
First Impressions: this booklet is about
emotional and practical support for families of a young child with
a learning disability.
Seeing the Psychologist for a Cognitive Assessment
A leaflet by Cheshire and Wirral Partnership
NHS foundation Trust.
The Royal College of Psychiatrists'
Faculty of the Psychiatry of Learning Disability and the
Leicestershire Partnership NHS Trust have produced accessible
information for people with mental health problems and learning
disabilities. All these materials have been written and tested with
people with learning disabilities and their carers.
Revised by the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ Child and Family
Public Engagement Editorial Board (CAFPEB).
With grateful thanks to Dr Nadia Ranceva, Dr Alison
Dunkerley , Dr Virginia Davies, Dr Vasu Balaguru, and Thomas
This resource reflects the best possible evidence at the time of
© Royal College of Psychiatrists March 2017
Due for review March 2020