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What Is a Profound Learning Disability?

Elizabeth West
Elizabeth West

A profound learning disability occurs when an individual's intellectual capacity and their adaptive or life skills are severely limited. This may accompany a developmental disability that causes distinct physical symptoms, or the cognitive aspect may present on its own. Those with these severe disabilities are unable to care for themselves and often miss out on opportunities to interact with other people in any meaningful way.

Medical conditions such as cerebral palsy (CP) sometimes include brain involvement that can result in a profound learning disability. Many people with CP have perfectly normal functioning brains, and only their mobility and coordination are affected. Autism is another problem often accompanied by a profound learning disability. While neurological conditions and chromosomal abnormalities like Down syndrome are often linked to an intellectual disability, it may also be caused by severe neglect.

Individuals with a profound learning disability may also have a developmental disability.
Individuals with a profound learning disability may also have a developmental disability.

Children reach distinct developmental milestones as they grow. While some children arrive later at some for various reasons, most milestones are consistently seen at the same ages. Delayed milestones such as speech, memory, and social or self-care skills, along with physical problems, can signal a possible profound learning disability. While no parent wants to hear this diagnosis, early intervention offers the best options for treatment of physical ailments and family support.

Intelligence quotient (IQ) is only one tool used to evaluate individuals with a potential disability. Typically an IQ score under 70 indicates some degree of mental retardation. Individuals who register less than 20 are considered to have a profound learning disability. Severe limitations in at least two aspects of social and adaptive functioning are also considered when seeking a diagnosis. These conditions usually have an early onset and are not curable.

Many individuals with a profound learning disability are unable to live alone, even as adults. They may need help feeding themselves, dressing, using the bathroom and will not be able to hold a job. Long term care can be expensive if the person is placed in a care facility, though it may sometimes be provided by family members. In both the US and the UK, a technique called intensive interaction has shown good results in helping autistic and learning disabled people become more comfortable communicating with their caregivers and others. Programs help caregivers and teachers learn how to implement the technique so they can better understand and interact with their charges.

Only in the mid-20th century have people with learning disabilities begun to be more integrated into schools and society at large. In earlier years, families would keep disabled children at home, where they often had no opportunities to interact with others. Government and private-run non-profit and for-profit agencies have established programs that teach disabled people life skills. Some offer daycare services for those who are unable to participate, to allow caregivers to work. Elimination of social segregation, along with changes in terminology, have given those with a profound learning disability a chance to be part of society.

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    • Individuals with a profound learning disability may also have a developmental disability.
      By: Leah-Anne Thompson
      Individuals with a profound learning disability may also have a developmental disability.