What is a severe learning disability?

The CBF is a charity specialising in severe learning disabilities. Read this page and watch the video to understand the signs of a severe learning disability and diagnosis.

What is a Severe Learning Disability?

The term learning disability refers to a range including; mild, moderate, severe and profound/multiple learning disabilities.

A severe learning disability will be identified at birth or in early childhood.

Someone who has a severe learning disability will:

  • have little or no speech
  • find it very difficult to learn new skills
  • need support with daily activities such as dressing, washing, eating and keeping safe
  • have difficulties with social skills
  • need life-long support

Read the formal definitions of a learning disability


A severe learning disability is typically diagnosed at birth or in early childhood. Signs of developmental delay may be noticed by a range of people such as health visitors, paediatricians, GPs or family members, prompting a formal assessment leading to a diagnosis.

If you have any concerns about developmental delay and would like some more information about getting a diagnosis, please read the information sheet produced by Contact.

Some individuals with severe learning disabilities may also be diagnosed with another condition such as, Autism Spectrum Disorder, Smith-Magenis Syndrome or Prader-Willi Syndrome. However, not every individual with a diagnosed condition, such as those above, will also have a severe learning disability.

Severe learning disabilities and challenging behaviour

Anyone can display challenging behaviour. The CBF focuses on supporting the family carers of children and adults with a severe learning disability, who also display challenging behaviour. When the person displaying the behaviour also has a severe learning disability, the behaviour is often the only way that person has to get their needs met.

The Challenging Behaviour Foundation aims to provide information and support to families and professionals to help support people with severe learning disabilities to live the lives they want. We know that when people with severe learning disabilities are well understood and supported challenging behaviour reduces in frequency and intensity.

What is challenging behaviour?

What is challenging behaviour?

‘Challenging behaviour’ is how we talk about a range of behaviours which some people with severe learning disabilities may display to get needs met. Find out more about why people display challenging behaviour and how the CBF can help.