We offer specialist care services for children and adults with learning difficulties and have found one of the most common questions that arises when we discuss our care services is how learning disabilities and learning difficulties differ.

The two terms can seem interchangeable but there is a marked difference between an individual with learning difficulties and one with learning disabilities. It can be hard for someone who is thought to have one when in fact they have the other to receive the right care, so understanding the difference as a carer/friend/relative is key!

MentalHealth.org differentiates between the two as follows:

  • a learning disability constitutes a condition which affects learning and intelligence across all areas of life
  • a learning difficulty constitutes a condition which creates an obstacle to a specific form of learning, but does not affect the overall IQ of an individual

Using this as our basis for understanding, an individual with a condition such as Downs Syndrome is seen to have a learning disability, as Downs Syndrome impacts all areas of the individual’s life, including their health, physical condition, IQ and life skills.

An individual with a condition such as dyslexia would be classed as having a learning difficulty, as this impacts only a certain area, or set of areas, and does not hinder their life skills otherwise. In this example, dyslexia impacts upon the ability to read, write and spell, but the individual can otherwise function without the need for ongoing care and support (for this specific condition).

Learning Disabilities Confused with Mental Health Problems

Sadly, we do also see learning disabilities confused with mental health problems. Whilst an individual with a learning disability may find this has an impact on their mental health, the two conditions are not the same. Someone with a learning disability is either born with it or develops it in early childhood and is a permanent condition. Mental health problems can arise at any time and are not always permanent.

Treatment of people with mental health problems is also different to those with learning disabilities, as mental health issues need to be resolved with support and sometimes pharmaceutical treatment. Those with learning disabilities receive ongoing support rather than treatment for the primary condition, to live their lives happily and effectively.

It is extremely important that specialist care for individuals with learning disabilities is tailored to each person, centred around their needs and wishes. They must feel empowered in their own care and able to lead the way where possible.