Information Now

Learning disabilities & Autism

What is a learning disability?

A learning disability is a life-long condition. It affects a person’s ability to communicate or to do everyday things.

People with a learning disability find it harder than others to learn, understand and communicate but it does not prevent someone from learning and achieving a lot in life, if he or she is given the right support. There are approximately 1.14 million people with a learning disability in the UK.

The definition of a learning disability is a significantly reduced:

  • ability to understand new or complex information
  • ability to learn new skills
  • ability to cope independently
  • ability which started before adulthood, with a lasting effect on development

The term learning disability was introduced in the UK to replace the term ‘mental handicap’.

What is a learning difficulty?

Many people with learning disabilities prefer to use the term ‘learning difficulty’. In health and social care services, the phrases ‘learning difficulty’ and ‘learning disability’ are used to mean the same thing.

However, in UK education services, the phrase ‘learning difficulty’ includes people who have specific learning difficulties (e.g. dyslexia), but who do not have a significant general impairment in intelligence.

What support may be needed?

Some people with a learning disability require very little support to live independent lives and may have jobs and busy social lives. Other people with more severe difficulties need extra support.

People with profound and multiple learning disabilities may need full-time help with every aspect of their lives – including eating, drinking, washing, dressing and toileting.

Some people with a learning disability may also have an additional impairment such as a physical disability or a sensory impairment. Others may have behaviour which is challenging and difficult for those who support and care for them. Learning disability is not a mental illness and people with a learning disability cannot be ‘cured’.

Causes of learning disabilities

A learning disability is caused by the way the brain develops before, during or soon after birth.

  • Before birth – things can happen to the central nervous system (the brain and the spinal cord) that can cause a learning disability. A child can be born with a learning disability if the mother has an accident or illness while she is pregnant, or if the unborn baby develops certain genes.
  • During birth – A person can be born with a learning disability if he or she does not get enough oxygen during childbirth or is born too early.
  • After birth – a learning disability can be caused by early childhood illnesses or physical accidents.
  • Inherited from parents A child can also be born with a learning disability if certain genes are passed on by a parent. This is called inherited learning disability.

The two most common causes of inherited learning disability are Fragile X syndrome and Down’s syndrome. Fragile X syndrome and Down’s syndrome are not learning disabilities, but people who have either condition are likely to have a learning disability too.

Health problems

People with a learning disability may be more prone to certain health problems. You may find it useful to read the following sections on our website:

Certificate of Vision Impairment (CVI). The updated certificate is a significant development with regard to eye care for people with learning disabilities. For the first time, the form asks the following questions if you have a learning disability.  Patients who have learning disabilities or dementia should be certificated using the same process as for other patients. Certification serves as a formal record of a patient having a visual impairment which is of huge significance when you are seeking to access social care support or financial benefits. Without certification, care and support providers are often unclear of someone’s level of vision and what practical support they require. You should receive your CVI along with an Easy Read covering letter.


Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is the name for a range of similar conditions, including Asperger syndrome, that affect a person’s social interaction, communication, interests and behaviour. Often diagnosed around the age of three years old, there are people who are diagnosed much later.  Children and young people with ASD frequently experience a range of cognitive (thinking), learning, emotional and behavioural problems.

For example, they may also have have related health problems including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety, or depression.

About 70% of people with Autism have a non-verbal IQ below 70. Overall, up to 50% of people with “severe learning difficulties” have a diagnosis of autism.

You may also be interested in related research based at Newcastle University and in Autistica that focuses on adults with a late diagnosis of autism.

Local help and advice

If you or a member of your family has a learning disability or autism, there are several organisations in Newcastle that can provide advice and support:

The Community Health and Social Care Direct – Newcastle City Council helps people with learning disabilities, autism and their carers. They can:

Advocacy Centre North operates a Community Advocacy Service, offering long term one to one advocacy support for vulnerable adults in the city.

Citizens Advice Newcastle offer a support service which includes reviewing correspondence.  Attend one of their drop in sessions for advice.

Newcastle Welfare Rights Service provide information and advice on benefits that you may be entitled to.

Disability North provide information and advice on disability equipment and activities, benefits and Direct Payments as well as advising on many other aspects of disability and signposting to other sources of help.

The National Autistic Society ( NAS) – provide information, support and a range of useful services.

Contact  offer support and advice on their website only.

Newcastle Carers can offer support, advice and guidance to people who look after someone with learning disabilities. They also run a monthly Learning disabilities (and autism) support group.

Shared Lives  is a  Council run service aimed at adults who have a learning disability or autism and who need overnight support and supervision.

Castle Dene offers a short break although there is a cost for this service.

Welford Centre is a day centre for adults who have learning disabilities and additional complex needs. Service users must be referred by a Health or Social Care professional following an assessment.

Local Social and Leisure Activities

ReCoCo: Recovery College Collective have various courses available for individuals with a learning difficulty or autism including a creative arts group, cinema buddies group, and a games and chat group.

Day Services and Lunch groups – read our article on Information NOW about day centres and activities in Newcastle.

Alan Shearer Activity Centre offers a short break facility for children and adults with physical and learning disabilities/autism. As well as short break accommodation, the centre has sensory rooms, a hydrotherapy pool, specialised seating cinema, and organised activities.

City Library hold a Quieter hour from 10 to 11 am on Saturdays.

Friends Action North East helps adults with learning disabilities to make friends. They also run varous clubs and groups including photography clubs.

Journey Enterprises offers support to those with acquired brain injury, learning disability and mental health issues

The Lawnmowers Independent Theatre Company is a company run by and for people with learning disabilities. They run workshops to raise awareness of issues which learning disabled people may face. They also organise other events such as nightclubs for people with learning disabilities.

Skills for People work with and support disabled people and their families. They offer a range of activities including a Help and Connect service to help people to connect with their local area, fitness and life planning

Cornerstone work with people with learning disabilities and autism in the west end of Newcastle. They offer a range of activities such as art, cooking and drama.

Hft (formerly Edward Lloyd Trust) has a specialist music studio where adults or children with learning disabilities can go for one to one music sessions or visit the Drop In Band.

Rookie Sports can arrange tailored programmes for clients with learning, physical or sensory disabilities to help them experience improvements in physical health through the gentle exercise. They also aim to increase their social network and develop new skills.

Liberdade Community Development Trust run an arts venue and café from Gosforth Civic Theatre.  It is an inclusive space for performance, music, cinema, and community activity at the heart of Gosforth that aims to break down misconceptions of learning disability while also being a space where everyone can enjoy their café, get involved in a class or go to a show.

Staying Safe

The Blue Card is a free resource for people with learning disabilities and autism in Newcastle. You can request a card and put your emergency contact details on it. Carrying The Blue Card will help you to feel safe and be safe when you are out and about.

You can use your Blue Card at a recognised ‘Safe Place’.

Safe Places

Safe Places are where people with learning disabilities and autism can go to get help if they’re worried, have lost something, or just need reassurance from staff at the Safe Place. Safe Places will have a yellow sticker in the window or on the door.

In the case of a hate crime, the Police will be called.

Safe Places that you can visit include:

The Nexus Travel Safe Guide gives advice and tips on how to travel around Newcastle safely.  You can also carry a Bridge card to identify that you need help.

Accessible Information Standard

If you have a sensory loss or disability you are entitled by law to accessible information about your health care and support from the NHS and publicly funded social care services. For example this could include large print or a professional BSL interpreter at medical appointments.

Services must:

  • Find out your information needs
  • Record them in a set way
  • Highlight them in your records so that staff meet your needs every time you use services
  • Share your information needs with other services e.g. if you give details to your GP then these can be shared with any hospital service you maybe referred to
  • Make sure you get support the way you need including when your needs vary. For example you may need to receive short letters in large print but need longer documents on audio.
  • Ask on a regular basis if your needs have changed

Remember – tell services this is your right to have your needs addressed and they have to do this by law (section 250 of the Health and Social Care Act 2012)

Other Useful Articles on Information NOW

You may find these articles on Information NOW useful

Other Useful Information

  • BrowseAloud reads web pages aloud for people who find it difficult to read online.
  • My Hospital films show people with learning disabilities what to expect when coming to hospital for a radiology appointment to help reduce any fears they may have.
  • Newcastle Libraries have a number of ‘Pictures to Share‘ collections. These books combine pictures and text for adults in a meaningful way and can help stimulate conversation between families, professionals and dementia suffers. These can also be used with stroke sufferers, as well as adults with learning disabilities and those with mental health needs.
  • Protected Telephone Services and Priority Repairs are available to help support people with long term conditions and disabilities. This helps to make sure that your phone line is working, so you can use it to stay in contact with others and in emergencies.
  • Respond is telephone helpline available to anyone with a learning disability, or their friends and family, who have experienced or been affected by institutional abuse. The helpline offers emotional support, practical advice, signposting and information giving. Regular counselling sessions are also available.
  • Henshaws run a specialist college for people with learning disabilities

Last updated: March 14, 2019

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