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What Is the Difference Between a Learning Difficulty and a Learning Disability?

10 October 2023

The terms “learning disability” and “learning difficulty” are used interchangeably and it is often thought that they have the same meaning. This can cause a lot of confusion as to what the definition of each is and blurs the line between them. Whilst both learning difficulties and learning disabilities present challenges to the sufferer, these challenges come with a completely different set of characteristics and implications.

In this article, we will explore the differences between learning disabilities and learning difficulties and explain how to differentiate between the two to ensure that people are offered the right level of support and intervention.

What is a learning difficulty?

A learning difficulty does not affect a person’s general intelligence but can affect the way that they process certain types of information and how they learn. Learning difficulties are life-long and there is no known cause but most people are able to manage their difficulties.

Support for people who live with a learning difficulty must be individual and specialised to tailor to the way they learn. It is important to mention that people suffering from learning difficulties often live independently and do not require additional help to carry out everyday tasks.

Some common learning difficulties include:

  • Dyslexia - problems with reading, writing and spelling
  • Dyspraxia - Affects coordination skills and movement
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) - Affects behaviour, attention span and concentration skills
  • Dyscalculia - A learning disability that specifically affects a person’s ability to understand numbers. This leads to difficulty in understanding mathematics in general
  • Dysgraphia - A learning difficulty that causes problems with writing

Typical symptoms of learning difficulties

Learning difficulties are often diagnosed in childhood but symptoms can be difficult to identify as they could sometimes be confused for personality traits. This makes it easy for people to slip under the radar. Some adults may have been dismissed as having low intelligence or being badly behaved when they were younger so have never received a diagnosis or the correct level of support. Symptoms of a learning difficulty include:

  • Lack of understanding of reading or writing tasks
  • Restlessness or lack of concentration
  • Difficulty with numbers and/or letters
  • Very short attention span
  • Difficulty with organisation
  • Poor memory
  • Frustration

Learning difficulty tests

For adults who are undiagnosed but believe they may have a learning difficulty, there are diagnostic assessments available to explore this further and potentially get a diagnosis. This assessment would need to be conducted upon referral from a GP and will help the person understand the problems they face and whether a learning difficulty is the reason for them.

What support is available for someone with learning difficulties?

Although most adults who live with a learning difficulty manage to live independently and complete everyday tasks, many will still require a level of support to help them with things like getting a job, socialising or managing their money.

  • Job support - Support with challenges in the workplace and help with finding work
  • Socialising support - A friendship and relationship service for adults with learning difficulties and disabilities
  • Education support - Designed to help people with learning difficulties and disabilities learn new skills and take courses in subjects that interest them

What is a learning disability?

A learning disability is a neurological condition causing reduced intelligence and problems with completing everyday tasks. Most people suffering from learning disabilities would struggle to live independently and require a variable level of care. They often struggle to understand complicated information and have issues learning new skills without the correct intervention.

Learning disabilities are often found alongside associated conditions and neurological disorders such as:

What causes a learning disability?

It is not always clear what causes a learning disability but it can be caused by the following:

  • Serious illness or injury during childhood
  • Genetics passed on from parents
  • Problems during birth that affect the level of oxygen reaching the brain
  • Premature birth
  • A chromosomal defect

Learning disability tests

If a concern is raised about whether someone may be suffering from a learning disability, there are assessments available to determine if they have one and what support they would benefit from.

What support is available?

Support for adults with learning disabilities is essential to help them live as independently as possible and enjoy life to its fullest. If you have cared for a loved one you will know how to support someone with a learning disability, however, sometimes you might need some external help.

The need for help will differ for each individual but some common support services are:

Employment support

Finding and keeping employment when you have a learning disability can be very difficult. Mencap supports people in finding work experience placements and paid jobs.

Support groups

Support groups can provide a sense of community with like-minded people who are all experiencing similar challenges.


A helpline can be a valuable resource for people suffering from learning disabilities or the people who are helping care for them.

Care services

Some people living with a learning disability may be able to manage with the support of family but this is not always the case. If you are looking for some additional help for someone you love, there are a range of care services available including:

Read our blog for a more in depth guide: What support is available for individuals with a learning disability

Butterfly’s Care Group can help individuals with learning disabilities across Essex

At Butterfly’s Care Group, we pride ourselves on giving all of our clients an outstanding level of support. Every person living with a disability should be treated individually, so for our clients with learning disabilities in Essex, we put together a tailor-made care plan for each of our clients based on their needs. 

If you would like to speak to us about our care services, contact us today.

Talk to us

We are more than happy to speak to you regarding any of our services or for some general advice.
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