How to Recognise Invisible Learning Difficulties

With thousands of UK children diagnosed with learning disabilities, recognising an invisible one can be tricky. We share some expert advice on how to spot a child with SEND, and make it manageable.


Invisible learning difficulties are just that, invisible, or so they seem. The experts at the Autism Education Trust tell us what steps you can take.

What is a learning disability?

Public Health England estimates suggest that learning disabilities affect 286,000 children in the UK. A learning disability is where a person has a significantly reduced ability to understand new or complex information, struggles to learn new skills and has a reduced ability to cope independently.

The more severely affected a child is, the more likely they are to be identified at an early age. Autism affects around 1 in 100 people in the UK. Around a third of children with learning disabilities may also have autism according to figures from the National Autistic Society.

Some children have Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND) such as dyslexia, dyspraxia, ADHD, ADD, or autism which affect how information is learned and processed. Special educational needs are independent of their level of intelligence and can occur alongside other disabilities. Having a learning disability isn't like being a wheelchair user, you can't tell just by looking at a child why they are not making progress at the same time or speed as other children of the same age.

Hidden disabilities are, by definition, harder to spot and are usually first noticed when a parent feels there is something different about their child, or by someone who has experience with a number of children such as a teacher in a nursery of school noticing that they do not react or learn in the same way.

There is a very useful guide to typical development from the NHS that gives an idea of the skills you might expect to see as your children progress through their early years. For example:

  • 6 months - will have some hand-to-hand coordination
  • 1.5 to 2 years - be able to put at least two words together
  • 3 to 5 years - use a knife and fork.

Early intervention is key

Children do things at different times and there are no hard and fast rules, but it can be useful to identify what skills may be late in developing. In older children, some issues are more likely to be identified as part of routine testing by school staff where a child is not keeping pace with other children in the same age group, or as a result of social difficulties that arise.

Delays in development can be due to a number of possible causes, but intervention as soon as possible after diagnosis - whenever that happens - can make a big difference. Variations in development become more noticeable as a child gets older, especially to them and to their peer group.

Whatever diagnosis a child has, it is important to their wellbeing to see it as a difference, rather than suggesting that there is something wrong with them. This is a central tenet of the Autism Education Standards, Competency Frameworks and training delivered by the Autism Education Trust to over 60,000 people since 2012. It examines 4 key areas:

  • the individual child
  • building relationships
  • curriculum and learning
  • enabling environments.

Whatever disability your child has, good practice for children with autism is good practice for all children.

Top Tips for working with Learning Disabilities

1. Start with the individual child

Each child has a very different profile of strengths and issues and they combine in a range of ways that impact on a child's learning. If you've met one child with autism, you've met one child with autism. The strategies you would use with a child who has Asperger Syndrome would look and feel different to the support you would give a child with autism and learning disabilities, even though they are working with the same underling issues.

2. Get a diagnosis if it will make a positive difference to your child

Early intervention has been shown to bring great benefits and improve the outcomes for children with a wide range of issues. The younger a child is, the more able they are to adapt and learn, making life much easier for them later on.

Adults with a range of conditions have said that diagnosis has been a very positive thing for them, helping them to come to terms with issues they may have struggled with their entire lives. Although some services may be available without diagnosis, it is usually the gateway to higher levels of support services through your local authority, school or setting which should be able to signpost through the 'local offer'.

3. One size doesn't fit all

When you are looking for an educational setting for your child, whether it is a nursery, school, or post 16 college, look at your child's strengths and how the educational setting supports children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND). The 'good' school down the road might not suit your child's needs.

The AET have a resource for parents, such as 'Finding a school for your child with autism' which helps you know what to look for, and how to differentiate between places you might send them.

4. Know what 'good' looks like

It can be hard to know how good a school is. The Autism Education Standards and Competency Frameworks for Early Years, Schools and Post 16 give examples of what settings and individual staff can do to enhance their provision for young people in each of those three phases. If a setting is using standards like those, they may not be perfect, but they will be keen to develop and will be more likely to work flexibly with you and your child. If the staff in a setting are well trained and proud of what they are doing, they are far more likely to be willing to talk to you about it!

5. Build strong relationships with staff

If you can build a strong relationship with a member of staff who works with your child, it can help them to understand your child better, provide appropriate support for them and to give you much needed reassurance when things are challenging. Don't try to do everything at once! Agree which three things are the most important, and do those first.

The AET's guide 'Working together with your child's school' is built upon the National Autism Education Standards and gives you a handy template to work through.

All educational settings are now covered by the Children and Families Act 2014 and the new Special Educational Needs and Disability Code of Practice: 0-25 years published by the Department for Education in January 2015 which specifies the support that children with SEND should receive. For the first time this includes children from birth to age 25 and emphasises the importance of the voice of the young person and their parent or carers in designing support that is effective for them across Education, Health and Social Care.