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Writing about learning disabilities and autism

Dimensions is a specialist not-for-profit provider of support for people with learning disabilities and autism in England and Wales. 

We support around 3,500 people, working with them and their families to help them live the lives they choose, advocating greater community inclusion, choice and control.

Writing about learning disabilities or autism?

It's important to us to represent the people we support in an empowering way.

In this case, journalists will find facts and figures on how to write about people with learning disabilities and autism. We want the people we support represented with respect and dignity.

Learning disabilities - terminology

Autism - terminology

Social communication

Social interaction

Social imagination

Sensory differences

Learning Disabilities – facts, figures and terminology

A learning disability is lifelong. People are described as having a mild, moderate, severe or profound disability, this is diagnosed based on IQ levels.

Increasingly people with learning disabilities are living lives of their choosing becoming much more independent and making their own decisions and this should be the centre of their support plan. The process of tailoring support to individuals is called personalisation.

People with a learning disability find it harder than others to learn, understand and communicate. They need support with everyday things, but the level of support needed by each individual varies.

People with learning disabilities can and do work. Supported Employment can be key for lots of people we support.

People with profound and multiple learning disabilities need full-time help with every aspect of their lives - including eating, drinking, washing, dressing and toileting. Yet other people require less intervention. 

While some people use the phrase learning difficulties, it is much more accurate to talk about people with learning disabilities. Learning difficulties covers a wider range of conditions, such as dyslexia and dyspraxia.

A learning disability is not a disease, a mental illness or a mental handicap. These terms are outdated and can be very offensive.

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Autism - terminology

Autism is a lifelong developmental condition; it is estimated about 1 in 100 people in the UK are diagnosed with autism.

Autism affects each person differently but often this affects how a person communicates, interacts and relates to other people, thinks, behaves and experiences their senses.

It is important to note that everyone with autism is unique and the above traits should never be used as a check list for diagnosis. Autism is a spectrum condition, which means that, while all people with autism share certain difficulties, their condition will affect them in different ways.

About half of people with autism may also have a learning disability. Many are affected by other mental health conditions such as ADHD, anxiety, or depression.

There's no cure for autism but a range of treatments, including education or behaviour support, can help people with the condition. Some people with autism can live independent lives and others will need support.

Asperger’s syndrome is a form of autism. People with Asperger’s syndrome are often of average or above average intelligence. Although they share many of the same differences as described above, they have fewer problems with speech but may still have difficulties with understanding and processing language.

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There are four main differences that people with autism experience:

1. Social Communication: Some people with autism struggle to understand verbal and non-verbal language, body language, facial expressions and sarcasm. They may interpret common phrases or sayings literally for example, “it’s raining cats and dogs”. In a conversation, when someone would normally know when it is their turn to speak, someone with autism may be unusually silent. On the other hand, once they start talking, they may carry on for much longer than normal. Some people with autism therefore have to learn the mechanics of conversation in a way that most people do not.

2. Social Interaction: Some people with autism may have difficulty expressing themselves and understanding the feelings and emotions of others. They may find it hard to adapt to social situations or form relationships.

3. Social imagination: (Desire for sameness and routines) Many people like life to be predictable. However, it is crucial to understand that in people with autism, the desire for sameness and routine is much more than just liking a routine. People with autism do not have the ability to work out what might happen if the expected plan or routine changes. This makes predictability paramount in order to feel safe and calm about life. Anxiety levels can rapidly rise for people with autism when things are unpredictable.

4. Sensory differences: For people with autism, there is likely to be a range of sensory processing differences, like sensitivity to noise levels and some specific sounds. They may have difficulty with their sense of balance and sense of where their bodies are in space, which can be both frightening and challenging to live with. Sensory issues around the taste and texture of food can lead to dietary difficulties; these can have considerable impact upon their lives.

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Contact us

Press office

Duncan Bell
Tel: 0300 303 9062 

Media enquiry

6-8 Churchill House
Meetinghouse Lane
S1 2DP

Out of office hours media enquiries

Tel: 0750 666 3793