How to Support Someone with Severe Learning Difficulties

Learning difficulties is a broad term used to describe people that have difficulties with a specific form of learning such as reading or writing. A learning difficulty does not influence a person’s intellect. It simply means they need extra support and encouragement to learn new information in different ways.

With the right support and alternative learning methods in place, people with learning difficulties can achieve the same success in reading, writing and maths skills as their peers.

Here we provide guidance on how to support someone with severe learning difficulties so that you can provide the encouragement needed to ensure your loved one’s happiness and success.

What are Severe Learning Difficulties?

Learning difficulties is an umbrella term for a variety of information-processing conditions that affect how a person learns, stores, analyses and processes new information. While learning difficulties are also sometimes referred to as ‘learning disorders’, many people prefer the terms ‘learning challenges’ or ‘learning differences’.

Learning difficulties do not affect intellect. Simply having a learning difficulty does not mean that a person cannot thrive academically or learn new skills. Everyone learns in different ways and has different strengths and challenges. People with learning difficulties need alternative learning methods designed to help them process information in a way that is meaningful for them.

While some learning difficulties are mild others can be profound and significantly impact a person’s quality of life. These severe learning difficulties can make it challenging for someone to develop reading, writing, and maths skills until they receive the necessary support.

Because a learning difficulty can make it challenging to learn new things in a typical classroom setting, many learning difficulties are identified during childhood. Early intervention and support can help children with learning difficulties thrive in a traditional classroom setting and reach the same academic success as their peers.

For others, their learning difficulty remains ‘invisible’ for their entire lives or remains unaddressed until adulthood. This can make it difficult for someone with a learning difficulty to receive the support they need to thrive in most traditional classrooms.

What Causes Learning Difficulties

It is not clear what causes learning difficulties, but researchers believe it is a mix of genetic influences, brain development and other environmental factors. Everyone’s brain is unique right down to how we process information. This could explain why some people have learning difficulties but it does not explain why no two people ever have the same learning difficulty.

Some of the possible causes of learning difficulties include:

  • Individual differences in the brain
  • Family history and genetics
  • Prenatal and neonatal risks
  • Psychological or physical trauma
  • Environmental exposure to toxins

What are the Types of Learning Difficulties?

A learning difficulty can be verbal or non-verbal. Verbal learning difficulties affect someone’s ability to read, write or process words while non-verbal learning difficulties can make it difficult to process complex or abstract information.

Some of the most common learning difficulties include:

  • Dyslexia: is one of the most common learning difficulties and it causes problems with certain abilities used for learning, such as reading and writing.
  • Dysgraphia: is a difficulty with written expression, including handwriting and spelling.
  • Dyscalculia: is a difficulty in learning number-related information and maths.
  • Auditory processing disorder: is a condition that impacts a person’s ability to filter and interpret sounds.
  • Developmental language disorder (DLD): is a difficulty with the comprehension and use of words in sentences.
  • Deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): is a neurodevelopmental condition that affects parts of the brain that control attention, impulses and concentration.

The Differences Between Severe Learning Difficulties And Disabilities

The terms learning difficulty and learning disability are often used interchangeably but they are not the same thing.

In general, a learning disability constitutes a condition that affects the way a person learns and processes information throughout their lives.

A learning difficulty is a condition that creates a specific obstacle to learning but does not affect the overall intellect of an individual. A person can have both a learning disability and a learning difficulty.

Diagnosing a Severe Learning Difficulty

Since people with learning difficulties often perform better with alternative methods of learning, they may fall behind in a typical classroom setting. This is especially common if their differences in learning have not yet been recognised.

When a learning difficulty first presents in childhood, many children do not understand why they are not performing to the same levels as their peers. This can impact a child’s wellbeing and lead to issues with confidence and self-esteem.

If you believe you or a loved one may have a learning difficulty, early intervention is important.  Getting the support of your health visitor and GP is often the first step. They can provide further guidance and refer you to a specialist if necessary.

Supporting Someone with Severe Learning Difficulties

Since everyone is unique and every learning difficulty is different, the support provided to someone should always be tailored to their individual needs, strengths and weaknesses.

Remember that coping with the challenges presented by a severe learning difficulty can be emotionally demanding. It is common for people with learning difficulties to become discouraged or experience significant anxiety or stress. Always provide lots of positive reinforcement and encouragement to support someone with a learning difficulty through these challenges.

Here are some general rules you can follow to support someone with a severe learning difficulty:

  • Make learning participative and include the person as much as possible in the process.
  • Observe what works for a particular person and what does not, so that you can tailor your approach to their specific learning style.
  • Concentrate on a person’s strengths, not weaknesses.
  • Speak in a clear and direct way while avoiding jargon or overly complicated language.
  • Listen closely to the content of what a person says and not necessarily how they deliver it.
  • Encourage learners to ask for help and let them know that this is acceptable and not a sign of failure.
  • Try to approach any learning obstacles with optimism and as an opportunity for growth.

Specialist Support from Liaise

There is no reason why people with severe learning difficulties cannot lead happy lives, provided that they are given the appropriate level of support.

At Liaise, we provide specialist support to people with a wide range of complex needs including autism, learning disabilities and physical support needs. Our supported living and residential care services empower people to live independently in their own homes while receiving the individualised support they need to enhance their lives.

We are inspired by our values of Positive, Progressive, and Personal support. We recognise each person we support as a unique individual who requires their own bespoke support framework.

We know that some people with severe learning difficulties have overlapping health and support needs. In order for our services to provide support, their learning difficulties must be secondary to the person’s other developmental or physical needs.

To learn more about our supported living and residential care services, do not hesitate to contact our friendly team. We are here to help your family and provide impartial support and guidance.