The terms ‘learning difficulty’ and ‘learning disability’ are often confused, or even used interchangeably but does that matter?

While no-one wants to label any person’s disability or difficulty, sometimes labels are useful to help us to provide the right support. Although the term learning difficulty appears to be preferred by many currently, maybe because there is a stigma around having a disability, using the term incorrectly does not help. So what’s the difference? A learning disability is an impairment in intelligence that affects a person’s ability to understand information, learn skills and cope independently. The term learning difficulty in the UK includes those individuals who have specific learning difficulties, such as dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia but who do not have a significant general impairment of intelligence. My son has a learning difficulty (dyslexia). He also has a university degree in finance and business management. He does not have impaired intelligence so it would be wrong to describe him as having a learning disability.

On the other hand, I look after a young man (through respite care) who has cerebral palsy and impaired intelligence, which means that he has a learning disability which will be life long and affect his ability to learn skills. Most of the children placed with Credo Care foster carers will have a learning disability and may also have a learning difficulty. However, some who are on the autistic spectrum, will only have a learning difficulty (due to the characteristics of their autism) and not a learning disability. Their intelligence may not be impaired and some may have above average intelligence (about 10% are savants).

Some of our autistic children may have a label of learning disability however we could all possibly think of some children with this diagnosis who we know are innately intelligent and could teach us a thing or two. What we need to do is to find out how the autistic child learns in order to use their natural intelligence to help them to reach their full potential in education and cognitive development.


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