Children with general learning disability: information for parents, carers and anyone who works with young people

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

What is meant by 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 specific learning 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.

The effects of learning disability

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 disability

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 distressed parent.

Learning disability and mental health

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 other children.


This leaflet is based on material produced by The Royal College of Psychiatrists.  (
© March 2012  - The Royal College of Psychiatrists. Reproduced with permission.

MHAF would like to thank the Royal College of Psychiatrists, United Kingdom, for kindly granting permission to use this leaflet  based on material produced by the Royal College of Psychiatrists ( © March 2012.