Learning Difficulties    


Learning Difficulties are usually classified on the basis of a child's intelligence quotient(IQ) score. One common definition of learning difficulties involves a person having an IQ of less than 70. 95% of children have an IQ score between 70 and 130. There have been other attempts to base definitions of learning difficulties on the ability of a person to live independently relative to their age. This involves an assessment of the ability to feed, dress oneself etc. Although this can be seen as a more satisfactory approach, the problem is that the assessment relies on the reports of carers and this may be subject to various biases.


Causes of Learning Difficulties

Learning Difficulties are often classified according to whether the cause is genetic or environmental.

1) Genetic - Genetic disabilities are usually caused by both parents having recessive genes for the disability.This in effect means that the parents themselves carry a gene for the disability, but they also possess a dominant gene which ensures that the recessive characteristics does not result in their having the disability. If both parents are carriers and the condition obeys the classic laws of inheritance, then there is a 1 in 4 chance of any child possessing the learning disability. It is also possible for one parent to have a dominant gene for the condition.

There are also Chromosomal Abnormalities which can cause Learning Difficulties i.e Down Syndrome (Trisomy 21 an extra chromosome on chromosome 21.

2) Environmental - The use of drugs by the mother in pregnancy i.e heroin, alcohol may cause learning difficulties. Other chemicals may have an effect i.e. radiation, lack of oxygen and pollutants such as Mercury

Physical damage to the brain during any stage of development can cause learning difficulties.


Mental Retardation


In 1959 The Mental Health Act(England and Wales) introduced the terms 'subnormality' and 'severe subnormality' to replace the terms 'idiocy', 'imbecility' and 'feeble-mindedness'(which were used by the 1944 Education Act)

Severe subnormality is usually associated with brain damage ( genetic, e.g. Down's Syndrome), while subnormality is usually associated with gross understimulation during infancy and childhood. However, according to the 1983 Mental health Act, the distinction is ultimately one of clinical judgement.


Measurement of Retardation


The measurement of mental retardation is normally based on the intelligence quotient (IQ) that the person has.


Mild Retardation (IQ 50-70)

This accounts for 80% of all mentally retarded people. Their appearance is usually normal and any sensory or motor deficits are slight. Most develop more or less normal language and social behaviour during the pre-school years and their retardation may never be formally identified. As adults, most can live independently but they may need help with housing and employment or when under some unusual stress.


Moderate Retardation (IQ 35-49)

This accounts for about 12% of all mentally retarded people. Most can talk or at least communicate and most can learn to care for themselves with supervision. As adults, they can usually undertake simple routine work and find their way around.


Severe Retardation (IQ 20-34)

This accounts for about 7% of all mentally retarded people. In the pre-school years their development is usually very slow. Eventually many can be trained to look after themselves with close supervision and to communicate simply.


Profound Retardation (IQ below 20)

This accounts for less than 1% of all mentally retarded people. Few learn to care for themselves completely but some achieve some simple speech and social behaviour.


Down Syndrome


Down syndrome occurs in approximately 1 in 1000 births


It is caused by an extra chromosome on chromosome 21. Down Syndrome is also refered to as Trisomy 21.


Recognition of Down Syndrome


In adults and children the physical characteristics of Down Syndrome are


Slanting Eyes

They are short

Flat Faces

Stubby Fingers

Swollen Tongues


In new born babies other physical characteristics include


Head tends to be small and oval

Ears are low set with small lobes

Bridge of nose is usually absent or poorly developed

Mouth tends to hang open with the tongue out

Grey white specks are seen in the iris of the eye


Psychological Characteristics of Down Syndrome


Retardation (differing in severity from person to person)


I.Q scores range from 35 to 49


Maternal Age and Down Syndrome


Maternal age affects the frequency of births with Down Syndrome


Maternal Age                    Frequency of Births with Down Syndrome


20-30                                   1 in 1500 births

35-40                                   1 in 600 births

45+                                      1 in 60 births


Therefore older mothers are more likely to give birth to children with Down Syndrome



The term autism means 'self-orientation' and it is used to refer to any inwardly directed activities, such as autistic thought.The pathological condition occurs in about 3 children per 10000 and boys outnumber girls 3 to 1. It is more common in high socio-economic families, though this may be because it goes unrecognised elsewhere or is labelled differently. It is apparent very early in life and is almost always diagnosed before school age



Autism is typically characterised by children demonstrating the following ;

1) Some children show withdrawal from social interaction, they have few facial expressions, lack empathy and emotion and fail to develop normal attachments

2) A dislike of changes in their environment so that they may become angry or distressed if objects are moved in their room

3) Lack of speech or speech that is not particularly communicative

4) Children with Autism tend to perform poorly on IQ tests and scores below 70

5) Some children with autism tend to show above average functioning in areas such as a)Drawing skills, b)Remembering names and dates, c)Performing complex calculations, d) the ability to play a musical instrument

These abilities are called 'Islands' of intelligence.


Possible Causes

Biological Factors - A neurological basis is suggested by the fact that many autistics are also epileptic, have abnormal brain waves and altered sensitivities. Also many typical autistic behaviours, such as repetitive movements, tics and rocking are also seen in people who have some brain damage. The patchy intelligence and linguistic deficits are also consistent with a brain damage hypothesis. Such damage might be the result of viral infections. For example in the 1960's an epidemic of rubella resulted in many babies being affected prenatally and some of them became autistic.


Psychological Explanations - Possibly intelligence is sub divided into different abilities, one of which is personal intelligence(the ability to perceive ones own and other people's states of mind). It is argued that autistic children might lack a personal intelligence which would mean that they were unable to understand the emotional states of other people and can't develop an understanding that other people can hold different thoughts. He supported this with empirical evidence that autistic children were far less able to match pictures of facial expressions to an emotion. This would explain their lack of pretend play and other social deficits.

Developmental Dyslexia


In general terms dyslexia is usually seen as a reasonably specific difficulty with reading and spelling, and that this difficulty would not be expected, on the basis of a child's other abilities. The reading and spelling difficulties often involve

1) Losing track of what is being read

2) Difficulty in saying unfamiliar words

3) The reversal and rotation of written letters

4) The omission of syllables


The disorder is present in 2% to 8% of school age children.

When reading orally they omit, add or distort the pronunciation of words to an unusual extent for their age. However this does not stop some dyslexic children from performing well in schoolwork activities.

In adulthood problems there are often problems with fluent oral reading, comprehension, and written spelling


 There may also be other associated difficulties with Dyslexia these being forgetfulness and clumsiness.


There is another type of dyslexia which is called 'Acquired

Dyslexia'. This is a condition with similar characteristics, but which is the result of some form of neurological damage.



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abnormal psychology