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General learning disability: Treatment, symptoms, advice and help


Learning disability has been labelled "mental handicap" and "mental retardation" in the past. Some doctors still speak of it in such terms believing it more accurately conveys the difficulties such individuals face. The new term "general learning disability" arose because of the stigma associated with the term "mental handicap" and because the extent of the handicap varies enormously from individual to individual. There are many causes, but in many cases it is very difficult to know exactly what causes the learning disability. This can be hard for parents to cope with. Some causes are due to genetic factors, infections before birth, damage to the brain or infections of the brain after birth. Complete assessment of a child can take some time because it is difficult to assess for intellectual functioning and social skills in infants.

Children with general learning difficulty do not develop the skills which would otherwise equipment them to cope with life as other young people do. This shows up in their intellectual and general coping abilities with poor language development, motor skills (movement) and social abilities. Children with general learning disability are not suffering from a mental illness, but they are more likely than other individuals to develop one. They are certainly more likely to display emotional and behavioural disorders. It is important that these are not missed and seen as "part of their condition" because families and children can receive specific help for these types of problems.

Children with learning difficulties may have other disabilities such as physical disabilities, hearing difficulties, autism, speech and language difficulties and epilepsy. These difficulties can lead to intense frustration in communicating with other people and coping with life situations. It is important to remember that the degree of learning disability is on a continuum from very mild to severe and that each child is different.

Effects on the family

A diagnosis of learning difficulty can be devastating to parents. Every parent wants their child to be "normal". It is common for parents to feel guilty, to wonder if it is down to one parent or the other, to have feelings of wanting to run away from the baby, to become depressed, feel ashamed, to go off sex with your partner, to become over-protective of the baby - a whole range of feelings that you may wish to discuss with your partner, family, doctor or a counsellor.

Often, these feelings develop later on when the extent of your child's disability become clearer. This can happen at times of a rite of passage - such as reaching school age, becoming a teenager, or reaching 18. At these times it really hits home how your child is different. The feelings of loss can be very powerful. Seeking help from a counsellor or doctor at such times is important for you and your child if you feel you are not coping.

Over time, most parents come to accept the limitations their child may present. You will come to see their strengths too. Most parents love their child and develop a relationship with them that recognises both their difficulties and positive attributes. Some parents become very engrossed and focussed on their child and this can lead to difficulties. It is natural to want to protect your child and to develop their strengths. Try not to overprotect your child and take over their complete management. You have to weigh up the emotional and physical cost of taking on sole responsibility. Tensions can develop between professionals and parents over the issue of how a child should be helped to develop their potential. Professionals can forget how difficult it is for families. Sometimes families feel they are pretty much left on their own without adequate support or advice. If this is the case, ask what is available and make a fuss if you don't feel you are getting the help you need.

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