Definitions of Learning Disability, Autism and Neurodiversity: FOI release

Information request and response under the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002.

Information requested

You asked what specific definitions of Learning Disability, Autism and Neurodiversity are used by the Government.


The answer to your question is noted below.

The Scottish Government is guided by the following definitions:

Learning Disabilities

Source: The keys to life - Improving Quality of Life for People with Learning Disabilities – Scottish Government (June 2013)

The term ‘learning disability’ is primarily used in the UK; the international term used is ‘intellectual disability’. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) (2004), people with learning disabilities are defined as meeting all three of the following criteria:

  • An intelligence quotient (IQ) less than 70;
  • Impairment of daily living skills or diminished ability;
  • Identification of such lifelong problems before the age of 18.

According to this definition, people are subdivided according to their level of learning disabilities: mild (IQ 50–69), moderate (IQ 35–49), severe (IQ 20–34) and profound (IQ less than 20).

In Scotland, people with learning disabilities are defined as having “a significant, life-long, condition that started before adulthood, which affected their development and which means they need help to understand information; learn new skills; and cope independently” (The keys to life, 2013, p 6).

This definition, provided by the Scottish Government, is functional in definition (with similar definitions adopted in the rest of the UK), as it places little or no emphasis on IQ. Not all persons with learning disabilities will have been subjected to an IQ test to determine their level of learning disability.

Furthermore, the Scottish Government has elaborated on this definition by positively defining the individual as a person, with dreams, aspirations, families and as a valued member of society (The keys to life, 2013).


Source: Scottish Strategy for Autism - Scottish Government (November 2011)

Autism is a lifelong developmental disorder more commonly referred to as autism spectrum disorder (ASD) but also known as autism spectrum condition (ASC). ASD affects people differently with some individuals being able to live independently. Others will need very specialist support.

However, terminology in this area changes often and so more recently the following statements reflect our understanding:

  • Autism is formally defined through diagnostic criteria ICD-11 and DSM-5, however we recognise that the deficit focussed terminology is viewed as problematic by people with lived experience.
  • Autism as a lifelong neurodevelopmental condition or difference. Autistic individuals share similar experiences of differences in sensory preferences, communication preferences and thinking styles.


Source: Appendix 1 - Children and young people - national neurodevelopmental specification: principles and standards of care – Scottish Government (September 2021)

Neurocognitive functions are selective aspects of brain functions - the ability to learn and use language, the ability to regulate attention, emotions, impulses (including movements and spontaneous utterances), social behaviours, and process sensory stimuli. Like height, these traits may be significantly genetically influenced, and are present from birth. Like height, the statistical normal range changes, dependant on age. The societal norm for a selective neurocognitive function is defined by the general population and may be variably and narrowly defined.

A Neurodevelopmental disorder is a term reserved for those who present with a 'functional' impairment in day to day life due to difference in one or more neurocognitive function which lie at the extreme of, or out with the normal range.

Neurodiversity is the statistical normal range of a function in a population at a particular age. Diversity is a trait of the whole group, not a specific individual.

Neurotypical describes individuals where a selective neurocognitive function falls within the prevalent societal norm.

Neurodivergent describes individuals where a selective neurocognitive function falls out with the prevalent range.

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