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Learning disability

  • Child development and growing up
Young boy sitting at a table in a library reading a book

Most children develop in a predictable way. Some children may be slower at reaching developmental milestones. If a child is slow in all areas of development, this is called global development delay. After the age of 5 this would then be referred to as a learning disability.

Early developmental impairment

Early developmental impairment is the term used when all areas of a young child’s development are delayed. This is also known as global developmental delay. With time, some children will show some catch up, but for many, although they will continue to make developmental progress, the gap between themselves and other children of the same age will widen over time.

By the age of 5 years, a developmental delay is more likely to be described as a long term learning difficulty/disability or intellectual disability (these terms are sometimes used interchangeably). Your child may need some additional support in school or even an Education, Health and Care Plan.

What is an intellectual disability

An intellectual disability is also known as a learning disability. It is a reduced intellectual ability and difficulty with everyday activities, which significantly affects someone’s life long-term. People with a learning disability tend to take longer to learn and may need support to develop new skills, understand complicated information and interact with other people. As your child grows they may also have difficulty with everyday activities such as household tasks and managing money. There are different degrees of severity including mild, moderate, severe or profound. 

The term learning difficulties means different things to different people. It can refer to difficulties with a specific learning difficulty such as affecting reading or maths only. It can also be used more loosely to refer to a general learning disability, or explain why a child may be struggling, without the need for a formal diagnosis.

Children with significant learning difficulties may struggle to manage their behaviour compared to other children. Their behaviour often reflects their developmental level, with attention or social skills of a much younger child. Although some of these behaviours may look similar to those described in ADHD or autism, often these behaviours are better explained by a child’s more general learning difficulties and can be supported with appropriate strategies.

It is important to remember that with the right support, most people with a learning disability in the UK can lead independent lives. 


What you can do to help

Enjoy your child like any other child. They are likely to take longer to reach the next developmental milestone so give them lots of opportunity to practice skills. When children are very young, health and education professionals may advise you in ways to support your child, but as children get older, support is through their school. There are no medical treatments to make your child develop faster.

If there are concerns about your child’s learning in school, speak to your schools Special Educational Needs Coordinator (SENCO) who will be able to advise and support a referral to community paediatrics if needed.

All schools have a responsibility to support children no matter what their additional needs are. Some children may need more support which can be provided through an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP). A small number of children with EHCPs go to a specialist education provision (special school). Read more about EHCPs or speak to your child’s early years provider or school about the process. 

If you are concerned about your child’s developmental progress when they are preschool age, you can speak to your health visitor or GP. Your health visitor or nursery setting can open an Early Help Assessment (EHA) which is the start point for support. Read more about Early Help.

How we can help

A community paediatrician thinks about the reasons why your child may have the difficulties that they have. They will examine your child, looking to see whether there is a physical explanation for their difficulties, and may request some medical tests. There are various reasons why a child might have a learning disability such as a genetic syndrome, but for many children we will not be able to identify a reason. A learning disability/intellectual disability will be their diagnosis and they will not have an additional medical diagnosis.

Most young children will already be under Early Support which is a joint health and education service to support your child in their early years. The team will work with you to support your child’s development and will make sure that the right support is in place as they start nursery and school. The medical team would not usually plan to review your child but will remain as a point of contact if there are any additional medical needs. Ongoing support for your child's learning and development will come via their school based on their needs.

Last reviewed: 1 November, 2023

Local support


Who can help

If you have any questions or concerns about your child's learning disability, a health professional in our team will be able to offer advice and support. You can call us on 0300 029 50 50.

Open Monday to Friday 8:30am to 4:30pm (excluding bank holidays).

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