Recognising General Learning Disabilities

Recognising General Learning Disabilities Having a child diagnosed with a disability can be devastating on a family, but with information, the correct diagnoses and getting the right help things can start to look up and you begin to believe that your child has a future ahead. Remember information and reaching out and asking for help is empowerment for you and your child.

What is general learning disabilities?

Just like any other child a child with a general learning disability (GLD) will progress and continue to learn throughout life, only at a much slower rate as they find it more difficult to learn, understand and do things compared to other children of the same age.  The disability can vary greatly from borderline, mild, moderate to severe/profound and some children will never learn to speak and are likely to require help when they grow up with looking after themselves. Other children with a mild general learning disability will grow up to become independent.

Mild General Learning Difficulties (MGLD)

  • Have significantly below-average general intellectual functioning
  • A slow rate of maturation
  • Reduced learning capacity
  • Inadequate social adjustment.

MGLD may also manifest itself in:

  • Delayed conceptual development
  • Difficulties in expressing ideas and feelings in words
  • A limited ability to abstract and generalise content learnt
  • Limited attention-span and poor retention ability
  • Slow speech and language development
  • Difficulty adapting to change
  • An underdeveloped sense of spatial awareness
  • Difficulties with reading, writing, comprehension and mathematical concepts

Some students may display:

  • Poor adaptive, inappropriate or immature personal behaviour
  • Low self-esteem; particularly when they enter post-primary school settings and this can result in unacceptable behaviour to avoid being seen as a failure
  • Emotional disturbance
  • General clumsiness and lack of coordination of fine and gross motor skills

Remember that every child is different and has their own strengths, learning style, personality and interests, these should be encouraged and self-esteem/confidence built (see below)

 Moderate general learning disability

  • Can display significant delay in reaching developmental milestones
  •  May have impaired development
  • Learning ability in respect of basic literacy and numeracy
  • Delays in language and communication, mobility and leisure skills, motor coordination and social and personal development.
  • May have difficulties with the length of time they can concentrate on activities, with generalizing and transferring knowledge across situations and with processing input from more than one sense at a time.
  •  IQ (Intelligence Quotient) may have a  cognitive functioning range from IQ 35 to 50 on standardised IQ tests.
  • Many may have accompanying impairments such as physical, hearing or visual impairment and emotional disturbance or impairment in communication skills.
  • May also have autistic spectrum disorders (ASD)

Severe to profound general learning disabilities

  • Likely to be severely impaired in their functioning in respect of a basic awareness and understanding of themselves, of the people around them and of the world they live in.
  • Many will have additional disabilities such as autistic spectrum disorders (ASD)
  • May also have a challenging and/or self-injurious behaviour, emotional disturbance, epilepsy, hearing impairment, physical impairment, severe impairment in communication skills and visual impairment.
  •  IQ (Intelligence Quotient) may be in the range 20 to 35 on standardised IQ tests, and a child with a profound general learning disability is described as having an IQ under 20.
  • Children will require other to provide their basic needs (feeding and toileting)
  • They have difficulties in mobility
  • Problems with generalizing skills from one situation to another
  • Significant delays in reaching developmental milestones and significant speech and/or communication difficulties.
  • Some may have associated behavioural problems.
  • May have limited communication skills but these difficulties in expressing themselves, do not diminish their communicative intent.

As I’ve said all children are different and any interest, hobbies, personality differences, learning styles and strengths should be nurtured and encouraged.

What causes general learning disability?

As of now, the cause for many remains unknown. However in some children, there may be a genetic factor, infection, brain injury or damage before, at birth or after birth e.g. Down’s syndrome, Fragile X syndrome and cerebral palsy.

It is important to recognise GLD as soon as possible as only then will the child and family receive the support they need. Developmental checks as important to attend and all health visitors are equipped to discuss any issues you may feel need addressing, so never be afraid to ask questions.

The effects of learning disability on the child and the family.

Children with a  general learning disability are aware of what goes on around them, but their ability to understand and communicate can be limited and it can be a difficulty for them to express themselves. As you can imagine this can make it hard for them to get their needs meet and can lead to them becoming frustrated and upset. Problems can arise when they transition to secondary school or start to compare themselves to other children, they can also feel sad or angry and have reduced self-confidence/low self-esteem.

For a parent or the other family members, it can be distressing to find out that their child has a disability. They can find it hard to communicate and manage their child’s behaviour. The reactions of others including family members can impact their stress levels as these people don’t fully understand the child’s mannerisms, behaviours and communications styles.

Brothers and sisters may feel jealous or embarrassed by their sibling. They can often be teased at school and can feel personally responsible for their sibling or parent.

There are a number of other cots that affect families when faced with a disabled child I have outline these here

Getting Help For Your Child

The Early Days
Children can be referred to HSE early intervention teams or community-based therapy services by GP, public health nurses or parents. The child will be assessed and an Assessment of Need report compiled, which you as the parent should receive a copy of.

Did you know?

On June 1st, 2007, Part 2 of the Disability Act 2005 became law. Under Part 2 of this Act, children with disabilities have a right to:

  • An independent assessment of their health and educational needs arising from their disability
  • An assessment report
  • A statement of services they will receive
  • Make a complaint if they are not happy with any part of the process

Your first point of contact is your local Assessment Officer who is responsible for your child’s assessment. Each Local Health Office has an Assessment Officer. They can assist you with your child’s application and help support you through the process. The Assessment Officer is responsible for issuing your child’s assessment report. Applications must be made in writing on a standard form which is available from your Local Health Office. Call the HSE information line 1850 24 1850 or check out www.hse.ie for a list of Local Health Officers in Ireland. Your child’s assessment must start within 3 months from when the completed application form is accepted by the HSE. It must be completed within a further 3 months from the date on which the assessment commenced.

Children with disabilities are also covered under the Education Act 1998 and the EPSEN Act 2004.

If your child is at school/Pre-school

Raise your concerns with your child’s teacher or school principal. Your child’s teacher/school will develop a plan with you to support your child’s learning and development and contact the NEPS on your behalf for a full assessment (National Educational Psychological Service (NEPS)). The school will then work together with other supports to provide the best education and support for your child. They will also require any previous assessments prior to your child attending school if one has already been completed by the HSE to put all supports in place. Department of Education and Skills policy is that children with GLD should attend mainstream school but if your child requires a more complex special education they may be supported in a special class within the mainstream school or attend a special school. Students who have significant care needs may have access to support from special needs assistants (SNAs). SNAs look after the care needs of children while the teacher is responsible for teaching the child. Your child may also require additional technology for support and special transport to and from school, information is available on the DES website at www.education.ie SENO (special educational needs organisers) will help you with much of this, you need to identify yourself to the school and SENO before your child begins there. If you don’t know who they are the class teacher or school principal will be able to introduce them to you. Some schools have a parent liaison office as well, their job is to liaison between the school and the parents. If your school has one don’t forget you can use them to help you talk to the school at any time and for additional support for you. Your SENO can assist you in a number of ways by:
• Providing support and advice
• Identifying possible school placements
• Liaising with the school, the HSE and other services
• Assisting in planning the transition of children to school,
between schools and onwards from school.

In secondary school, you will need to apply for RACE (reasonable accommodation in certificate examinations). Your school will be able to provide information and help in applying for these. Please note you may need an up to date assessment for your child before the 5th year as RACE is applied for at the start of the 5th year for Leaving certificate. It is applied for at the start of the 3rd year for Junior certificate. But please check with your school for updates on this information or SENO.

Building Self-Esteem and Confidence

  • See the world through your children’s eyes.
  • Use respect when communicating, always answer their questions and don’t interrupt them when they communicate
  • All children need their parent’s undivided attention, so spending one-on-one time with them will increase their feeling of being loved by you.
  • Remember all children as special in their own right, have their own strengths and personality.  Accept and love children for who they are, this will help your child feel more secure in who they are and in their ability to reach out to others and learn to solve their own problems
  • Give children a chance to contribute as they learn that you  see them as valuable and that you have faith in their
    abilities and gives them a sense of responsibility.
  • Any mistakes made should always be treated as learning opportunities. So don’t overreact, this will only lead them to avoid taking risks and then end up blaming others for their problems
  • Always, always and I can’t emphasise this enough, play to their strengths and emphasise their strengths to them. A sense of accomplishment and pride gives children the confidence to persevere when they face challenges.
  • Again allow children to solve problems and make decisions. Also, allow them to suffer the consequences (age appropriate of course) Avoid telling the child what to do but encourage them to come up with solutions to problems.
  • When you discipline them, do so from a teaching perspective. Never use intimidation or humiliation as a means of disciplining your child.
  • Dealing with Prejudice. This will arise from time to time and will challenge both you and your child. But if your child has been raised to value themselves and feels supported, they will turn to you or if they are older to an appropriate authority to deal with this kind of behaviour. they may come across people with challenging attitudes. There is also help available from support groups and other organisations like Inclusion Ireland, Enable Ireland, Federation of Voluntary Bodies, your child’s school and the HSE. (These organisations are in Ireland please look up relevant authorities in your location)Building self-esteen and self-confidence in children DBpsychology

Benefits and Entitlements

Just when you have been handed a diagnosis you also have to apply for benefits and ensure you know yours and your child’s entitlement are. This can be very difficult, the wording on forms can be hard to comprehend, they use language that only want s your child’s difficulties and you may even question why you should be getting this at all. But you need to remember that your child has a right to apply. Enable Ireland has a booklet “Benefits and Entitlements” with up to date information on their website to make it easier to understand these forms and what your child’s benefits and entitlements are I would strongly advise you to look this up. Their team member can also advise you further on the subject. They have a number of resources for parents on their website

Other Resources


Enable Ireland pdf for parents

We offer counselling  parents of children with a disability. Call 089 4373641  for an appointment.


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