Salvesen Mindroom Research Centre

About learning difficulties

Definitions, diagnosis and support.

“Learning difficulties” is a contested term.  We use it to refer to neurological and cognitive differences that make learning difficult.

On a day-to-day basis, that can be many things including:

  • struggling with reading, writing or numeracy
  • not being able to concentrate for long periods
  • losing track of time
  • forgetting what has just been learnt
  • acting impulsively

These difficulties arise because learning – at home, in nurseries or schools, in the community and the workplace – is often set-up with an average individual in mind. Learning difficulties (in Scottish education, described as “additional support needs”) are reported in 20% of children in Scotland, meaning that in a classroom in a mainstream school, approximately 6 children will have a learning difficulty.

If diagnosed, a learning difficulty may be associated with many neurodevelopmental conditions such as:

  • attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • autism spectrum disorder (ASD, or just autism)
  • developmental coordination disorder (DCD/dyspraxia)
  • speech and language problems
  • Tourette syndrome
  • dyslexia
  • dyscalculia
  • dysgraphia


Many learning difficulties are also the result of more than one condition and it is more often the case than not, that children will have coexisting conditions. For example, ADHD plus ASD, or DCD plus dyslexia may commonly be seen together. Learning difficulties are also frequently linked with mental health issues or psychiatric disorders.

Specifically, in defining learning difficulties, we recognise that

  • difficulties with learning arise not only from factors within the child (e.g. finding it hard to hold information in memory), but also in their interaction with their environment (For example, distracting materials in the classroom) and other people (e.g. being expected to follow multi-part teacher instructions)
  • most children with learning difficulties will show an uneven profile of abilities, rather than challenges across the board, meaning that strengths can be identified and built upon
  • suitable strategies to overcome difficulties with learning should focus not on making the child more typical, but accommodating their learning profile in education
  • some learning difficulties may be associated with a diagnosis - such as autism, dyslexia, ADHD or dyspraxia – and others may not
  • for many people, multiple learning difficulties may be present at once, and some may co-occur with health conditions such as epilepsy or depression.