Autism is a lifelong developmental difference which impacts on how an individual communicates and interacts with others and how they experience the world around them. Autism is comprised of the ‘dyad of impairments’ which includes social communication and repetitive and restricted interests. 

Link here for further information on autism

A child or young person diagnosed with autism may also have one or more co-existing conditions such as a physical health need, a mental health diagnosis, a physical disability, or a learning disability.  Co-existing conditions such as these occur more frequently in autistic children and young people compared with neurotypical children and young people (Close et al, 2012).  A learning disability, sometimes referred to as an intellectual disability, is the most common co-occurring condition with autism (Motson, 2009; O’Brien & Pearson, 2004) 

The significance of a student’s learning disability is identified through severity of general intellectual functioning which is why it is often categorised as Mild/Moderate, Severe, or Profound.  This diagnosis confirms to parents, educators and practitioners that the student is likely to find it more difficult to learn and perform tasks as students of the same age.  

For more information follow the links below:

Learning Disabilities
Children with Special Educational Needs
A resource to support children with SEN
Understanding Memory

Autism also impacts on learning and task performance which means there is a great deal of similarity between autism and learning disability, but they are different:    

  • Autism is a neurological developmental condition characterised by a dyad of core symptoms in social communication and restricted interests and repetitive behaviours, including unusual sensory responses (APA, 2013). 
  • Learning disability is a global development delay characterised by difficulties with social, cognitive, and adaptive functioning (Howlin, 2000).  

Both affect the way a child or young person understands information and how they communicate. This means the child or young person may have difficulty:

  • understanding new or complex information
  • learning new skills
  • coping independently

 (NHS, 2018) 

These similarities may explain why autism and learning disability are often confused with the term complex needs.  Complex Needs refers to a child or young person needing a high level of support with various aspects of daily living across the 24-hour-day.  The complexity may be due to a range of co-existing conditions, such as one or more medical condition, a physical disability, as well as autism and a learning disability. 

A child or young person diagnosed with autism and a co-existing learning disability can learn throughout their life if provided with the right support. When teaching a new skill to the child or young person with this dual diagnosis, it is important to tailor the support to ensure it is pitched or differentiated at the right learning level so progress can be made.  The child or young person may also need the new learning presented frequently in a variety of ways before they achieve the new learning or are able to generalise and apply it independently.  The autistic child or young person with a learning disability will need support that is far more individualised, specialised and structured than their neurotypical peers (Howlin, 2000). 

It is hoped this resource it will assist with learning and engagement across home and school settings to help the child or young person reach their full potential.