Challenging perceptions of learning disabilities and learning difficulties

Care-experienced young people go through a lot when it comes to navigating the ins and outs of each foster care home they find themselves in. They have to work out how to sustain meaningful relationships and find a way into further education or employment, all whilst carrying trauma. To top this off,  some of the young people working with Drive Forward may also deal with learning difficulties and/or learning disabilities.  

The difference between the two is complex at best but simply put: a learning difficulty does not affect general intelligence, whereas a learning disability is linked to an overall cognitive impairment. The NHS stresses the point that a “learning disability happens when a person’s brain development is affected, either before they’re born [the mother becoming ill], during their birth or in early childhood [illness, injury].” That is not to say that young people with these challenges cannot achieve success or fulfillment but it means that our approach to working with them must be tailor made as each young person is unique.  

As a result of the complexity of experiences, challenges and personalities of each young person sitting in front of us, we feel it is important to focus on the individual, their ambitions and aspirations, rather than looking for a diagnosis to explain certain behaviours. Especially because many associated symptoms or behaviours of learning difficulties/disabilities mimic other underlying factors like childhood trauma, making it hard to adequately diagnose in the first place. For example, there are many different reasons for why individuals may experience chronic anxiety. For some, this may stem from the trauma that they have suffered, whilst for others their anxiety may be related to an underlying physical condition. In any case, we would rather use our resources to help the young person reach their goals and aspirations instead of focusing on pinning down possible additional barriers.  

Some of the common learning challenges that we are going to highlight are dyslexia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autistic spectrum disorder (ASD).   

Examples of learning difficulties: 

Dyslexia: what is it? 

Dyslexia is a specific learning difficulty, which means it causes problems with certain abilities used for learning, such as reading and writing. Living with dyslexia can be anything from confusing similar letter such as “d” and “b” to being able to understand information verbally but having trouble writing it down, finding it hard to carry out a sequence of directions or difficulties revising for exams. This can cause people with dyslexia to avoid having to read and write whenever possible as it can be frustrating and, unfortunately, there’s still a lot of stigma attached. 


Stacey, our Compass Programme Manager has this to say about her own experiences: 

“I just want people to know that I’m not dumb, as long as I have time I can do the work, essays and make professional memos but if I’m rushed, my work will have mistakes. They can’t all be caught with a spell checker…but if I have time to reflect and check with the dictionary my work’s good.” 

Stacey challenges perceptions by not letting her dyslexia become a barrier for her studies and is currently pursuing a Masters in Law!

With an estimate of 1 in every 10 people in the UK having some degree of dyslexia, let’s look at some easy ways to support someone with dyslexia. 

Technology is a wonderful ally to those with dyslexia, especially assistive technology such as text-to-speech or speech recognition software as it enables someone with dyslexia to utilise their listening and speaking strengths to boost their written abilities. Stacey is a fan of the “C-pen”, this clever piece of kit is a portable scanner that “reads” anything it highlights and verbalises it for the user – that’s one fancy pen! 

However, simpler methods that make a big difference are: breaking down the material into smaller chunks, having more time to read through it carefully, changing the contrast of any monitors or buying a coloured overlay, will make reading from a screen more manageable. Working on an intensive 1-2-1 basis with young people, our Employment Consultants are aware of their challenges and committed to supporting them so that they are able to manage and master the hurdles in front of them. It is their job to support young people with their CVs and job applications, to ensure that they have the best possible chance to obtain work but also to provide tools to help young people better understand and be aware of themselves. 

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)        

This condition is most commonly presented as children having a short attention span, constantly fidgeting and acting without thinking. Usually ADHD is diagnosed in children aged 6-12 where this kind of behaviour is more noticeable in school. However, there are times where a diagnosis could be missed and it becomes harder to detect as the symptoms for adults are more subtle or perceived differently, therefore challenging the perceptions that ADHD only affects younger children. 

For undiagnosed young people or adults ADHD can appear as carelessness or lacking attention to detail, having difficulty focusing, mood swings – especially irritability to the point where they can be quick to temper. Symptoms can even affect safety in that an adult with ADHD may take more risks with little regard to their own or other’s wellbeing, for example dangerous driving. ADHD tends to also run in families and, in most cases, it is thought the genes you inherit from your parents are a significant factor in developing ADHD. 

By the age of 25, an estimated 15% of people diagnosed with ADHD as children still have a full range of symptoms, and 65% still have some symptoms that affect their daily lives. With such an effect on people’s daily lives, ADHD can be managed with appropriate educational support, advice and support for parents and affected children, alongside medicine, if necessary.  

Simple solutions to try can be writing lists or diaries and sticking up visual reminders to help with organisation, having the space to blow off steam by exercising regularly or finding ways to relax either by listening to music or through meditation. At Drive Forward, as part of our Compass prorgamme (working with looked-after children aged 13+) we have been researching the positive benefits of physical education on children with ADHD. We have also invested in a variety of fidget tools (more than just a trend!) to help young people focus during workshops or other activities.  

Learning Disability – autistic spectrum disorder (ASD)  

ASD is a lifelong developmental disability that refers to a broad range of conditions characterised by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviours, speech and nonverbal communication.

Rachel Neuer, one of our Employment Consultants says:  

“It is never best to make assumptions of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) especially with our client group where there are usually multiple issues of co-morbidity conditions. Since many conditions present similarly, very few people will actually self-identify.”  

This reiterates the point we mentioned above, seeking an exact diagnosis may actually be counterproductive in some cases so Drive Forward prioritises needs over diagnosis.  

Like with everyone, people with ASD each have their own strengths and challenges. However, most often people with ASD find social communication and social interaction very challenging. For social communication, it is difficult for people with ASD to navigate because they may have varying levels of speech, are unable to read facial expressions or are unable to detect the nuance of language and therefore take things literally.  

When it comes to social interactions, it is easy to feel overwhelmed with the numerous unwritten rules of the world, so people with ASD often remove themselves to have time on their own and do not seek comfort from others. With humans being social creatures by nature, it is easy to see why all of these challenges make it hard for people with ASD to form and maintain relationships.  

One in 100 people are on the autism spectrum and there are around 700,000 autistic adults and children in the UK. 

The world is a big, loud place that’s always changing and for people with ASD, they find comfort and security in repetitive behaviours. This is where routine is key!

Routine becomes something known and something that people with ASD can rely on. These can be anything from using the same path to school, wearing the same clothes or eating the same thing for breakfast every day. Having a routine, where the day is planned is helpful as even the smallest of changes can cause distress. Repetitive behaviours like using fidget toys or twirling a pen can be used to keep calm or to just have fun! When it comes to organising, keeping things simple, slow and visual are all great ways to make information easier to understand. 

Only 1 in 6 people with autism have a full time job in the UK. The National Autistic Society challenges perceptions by supporting employers and jobseekers to highlight the benefit of having a diverse workforce.  

Success looks different for everyone but the road to success is open to all with Drive Forward! 

The picture above is a wonderful piece of creative writing by a Compass programme participant. She is an active 14 year old who has learning disabilities, but that doesn’t stop her from challenging perceptions to achieve anything she sets her mind to. She may need some assistance every now and again but with a little time and support, she is a force to be reckoned with!  

In the last two years with us, she has found her power through self-defense training, starred in two plays, completed an introduction to photography course, attended a career insight day with the Metropolitan Police and raised £160 for charity… and that is what she does in her spare time, phew! 

These are just a few examples of the challenges young people have to deal with and what we are doing to develop a truly inclusive, informed, and supportive approach. We are putting the individual, their needs and aspirations, at the very centre of our work, every day.  

Our aim is to enable all care-experienced young people working with us to benefit from the opportunities we offer and achieve their full potential.

For more information and support, or to find out how you can transform young lives by partnering with us

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