Looking to the Future: Children and Young People with Learning Disabilities

21 October 2011

This week our former Co-Director Barbara McIntosh kicked off her new role as Head of Children and Young People with the Mental Health Foundation (our partner organisation) with a bang, by bringing together departments from across the organisations to discuss the current concerns regarding children and young people in the UK.

This seminar was a great opportunity to get together and discuss the real issues affecting all children and young people, including those with learning disabilities and mental health issues.

The Mental Health Foundation’s former Chair of the Board of Trustees, Dr Mike Shooter, gave an eye opening account of some of the hardships facing children and young people in the UK today. Dr Andrew McCulloch, our CEO, Simon Lawton-Smith, our Head of Policy and Barbara also spoke about the issues which need to be addressed. Graham Allen’s report 'Early Intervention; The Next Steps (2011)', states that the first three years of child development are vital in the creation of a mentally healthy adult. He comments that ‘the provision of successful evidence-based early intervention programmes remains persistently patchy and dogged by institutional and financial obstacles’ and calls for Central and Local Government to work towards a 'cultural shift towards early intervention'.

In the report it notes that 'babies are born with 25 per cent of their brains developed, and there is then a rapid period of development so that by the age of 3 their brains are 80 per cent developed'. This goes to show the importance of getting the right support for children and young people at this early stage as without it children can grow up without the tools required to lead mentally healthy lives. Information, guidance and support for parents are also needed as it is they who are key in creating a stable and healthy environment for children to grow up in.

The mental health and wellbeing of children and young people is an area that we are passionate about. Past projects have included Count Us In which addressed the mental health needs of young people with learning disabilities. I am also currently running a project called An Ordinary Life, which aims to improve the lives of children with long term health conditions who are dependent on medical technology.

It is widely acknowledged that childhood and adolescence are a particularly difficult time for some people, and for children with learning disabilities this can be compounded by the additional needs and challenges that having a learning disability can bring. For example, 36% of young people with a learning disability will experience such problems compared with 8% of young people without a learning disability (Emerson and Hatton, 2007).

We are continuing to generate work which we hope will raise awareness of the difficulties faced by children and young people with learning disabilities. For example, a new project which is currently being explored is looking into the experiences of children with Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder. These children have largely been misdiagnosed and their behaviours misunderstood as diagnosis of this condition is problematic for a number of reasons; such as, 'a lack of a specific diagnostic test'. (Foetal Alcohol Syndrome; A Guide for Healthcare Professionals, 2007).

Some of the effects on children whose mothers drink alcohol during pregnancy are ‘damage to the brain, distinctive facial deformities, physical and emotional developmental problems, memory and attention deficits and a variety of cognitive and behavioural problems’ (Foetal Alcohol Syndrome; A guide for healthcare professionals, 2007).

This condition is entirely preventable if women do not drink during pregnancy. We are meeting with key figures in the field in order to consider what support or research is needed to help prevent further cases and to help those already dealing with its affects.

What other issues affecting children and young people with learning disabilities today do you think should be explored? We’d love to know your views.