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Learning Disabilities


UK [1]

  • About 2% of the population have a learning disability
  • The number of adults with learning disabilities aged over 60 is predicted to increase by 36 per cent between 2001 and 2021
  • About 60% of adults with learning disabilities live with their families
  • 17% of people with learning disabilities of working age have a paid job
  • Children and young people with learning disabilities are 6 times more likely to have mental health problems than other young people
  • Almost one in three people with learning disabilities say they do not have any contact with friends

What is it?

People with learning disabilities find it harder to learn, but they can do so with help from other people. Learning disabilities occur in people from all backgrounds and of all abilities. More males than females have severe learning disabilities. Learning disabilities are sometimes known as learning difficulties, intellectual disabilities or developmental disabilities.

Causes and syndromes

Learning disabilities can be caused by things that happen before birth. For example, there may be a genetic cause. The mother may have an infection, such as German measles. Learning disabilities can be caused by problems during birth, if for example not enough oxygen gets to the brain. Sometimes a childhood illness such as meningitis, can cause learning disabilities.

Autistic Spectrum Disorder
Children with autistic spectrum disorder have difficulty understanding what other people are saying, need help to play with other children, enjoy routines and find unfamiliar situations difficult. One estimate of the numbers of people with autistic spectrum disorder is 1 in 200.

Down's Syndrome
Down's Syndrome is a condition which arises at conception. In its commonest form each cell in the body has an extra chromosome 21, making 47 in all. This affects the growth of the developing baby. One in 600 children in the UK are born with Down's syndrome, which is the single largest known cause of learning disabilities.

Fragile X Syndrome
Fragile X Syndrome is caused by an "fragile" site on the X chromosome. It is the most common identifiable cause of inherited learning disabilities. One in 3000 males and 1 in 6000 females have this inherited condition. It can cause a wide range of difficulties with learning as well as social, language, attentional, emotional and behavourial problems.


People with learning disabilities are more likely than other people to have certain health problems. Up to one third may have epilepsy, a third are likely to have problems with their hearing and/or eyesight, and they may be more at risk of mental ill-health.

Further information

Acknowledgements: This section has been developed with the help of the Foundation for People with Learning Disabilities.

[1] The Foundation for People with Learning Disabilities (2007) Statistics about people with learning disabilities. [accessed 29/11/12].


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