Learning Disabilities and Feeling Lonely

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For many people, lockdown has exacerbated feelings of loneliness. For adults with learning disabilities, feeling lonely can be a long-term challenge, and one that they may have been experiencing prior to lockdown.

Whilst everyone can experience feeling lonely at some point during their lives, research has shown that individuals with a learning disability are more likely to report feelings of loneliness and isolation.

Symptoms of loneliness

Loneliness can affect people both mentally and physically.

If someone is feeling lonely, they may feel an inability to connect on a deeper level with others, and experience feelings of isolation even when surrounded by people. They may feel tired or unfulfilled after social engagement.

Chronic loneliness is not only mentally draining but can also lead to physical health issues such as diabetes, high blood pressure and even heart disease.

The first episode of The Kind Place Podcast from the British Red Cross explores what it means to be lonely, featuring experiences of people living with loneliness.

Research suggests a number of people with a learning disability feel lonely nearly always or all of the time.

Feeling lonely: Key facts and statistics

  • The Community Life Survey 2019/20 found 14% of adults (16+) in England with a limiting long-term illness or disability said they felt lonely almost always or all of the time, compared to 4% of people without. Just 14% of people with a disability or long-term limiting illness said that they never felt lonely, compared to 23% of people without.
  • When surveying parents regarding their child’s participation in various activities Abbie Solish et al., 2009 found children and teenagers with an intellectual disability or autism spectrum disorder take part in less social and recreational activities than those without. Abbie Solish et al., 2009. This conclusion was also drawn in later research by Azin Taheri et al. (2016) 
  • Research conducted by Mencap in 2019 found that 1 in 3 young people with a learning disability spent less than an hour outside of their home on a typical day.
  • A study conducted on individuals aged 16-64 with and without disabilities found that people with a disability were significantly more likely to report loneliness, low social support and social isolation than those with no disability. (Eric Emerson et al., 2020) 

Barriers to social connection

The statistics above show that loneliness is more prevalent in individuals with a learning disability. When looking at the possible connection between loneliness and learning disabilities, numerous studies have been conducted on the topic exploring potential reasons for this, and similarities have been found across the research.

A study conducted by Suzie Beart et al. (2001) found lack of support to be a barrier to engaging in social opportunities, as well as lack of accessibility around public transport and disabled access and provision.

More recently, a review conducted by Rebecca Haythorne et al. (2021) concluded similar results. The study found a lack of tailored support and activities, and a lack of resources to be some of the main barriers to active recreation.

Perception of public attitudes has also been highlighted as a barrier to engaging in social connection. The perception that others may judge or think negatively towards their disability means that individuals may withdraw from social interactions even if they are interested in an activity or want to get to know someone.

These studies show that unfortunately attitudes and provisions have not progressed enough over the last decade. It is vital that we challenge stereotypes and negative opinions, and push for societal change to allow those with learning disabilities to feel better supported in engaging with their local communities.

What you can do to combat loneliness

If you’re feeling lonely, remember to reach out for support.

There are a variety of apps and online communities that are specifically designed for meeting new people and making new friends:

  • MeetUp allows you to connect with others with similar interests either online or in person.
  • Meet’n’Match is a friendship and dating agency created for adults with a learning disability and/or autism. They also offer social activities and relationship training.
  • The Gateway Award is an activity-based award for people with learning disabilities of any age or ability. The award is comprised of 3 levels – Bronze, Silver and Gold, and is designed to encourage participants to experience new things, increase their confidence, connect with others, and make new friends.

Local communities have also been working hard to remove some of the barriers to social connection.

There are a range of national schemes to improve access to transport. These include railcards, free bus passes and the Blue Badge scheme.

However, in some areas of the country, the government schemes and local council support does not go far enough. To combat this, local Mencap groups, community centres and other individuals have set up local initiatives.

Tailored activity provision is also improving across the UK. Special Olympics Great Britain is a non-profit organisation that provides sports coaching and competitions all year round for children and adults with intellectual disabilities.

Mencap also has a range of Network Partners across the UK that run a range of activities each week. Find a local group near you.

The role of supported living

Supported living services are an essential part of providing care to individuals living with learning disabilities, and professionals within health and social care services can help individuals to combat feelings of loneliness.

Our Kirk House service, located in Carlisle, has a dedicated Learning Disability Nurse who offers tailored support to our residents. She comments:

“In my experience, people with learning disabilities/difficulties do often experience loneliness in general and this has been exacerbated by the lockdown. I had a chat with a young lady last week who said she always went to football every week, but since the lockdown she is too afraid to go now and the thought of it creates a lot of fear and anxiety for her.

I personally feel that if a person has a learning disability or autism (diagnosed or not), the person is already battling to ‘fit in’ to society and struggling to develop their own identity in a world where they may either look or feel different to the images of success, beauty, and achievement that they see all around them.

I see my role as working with people to help them break down these types of barriers and empower them to achieve their full potential, be comfortable in their own skin and develop newfound confidence in their achievements.”

Here at Northern Healthcare, our teams work together to provide support to our residents, encouraging them to engage in activities and learn new skills, and supporting them out and about in the community. Find out more about our support model.

Further resources:

There are lots of resources available to help combat loneliness. Mental Health is Health have a selection of videos and exercises that you may find useful, and the British Red Cross also has some great tips on how to get help with loneliness.

The Lonely Hour Podcast features people sharing their stories and talking about their experiences of loneliness. It can be helpful to have others to relate to and know you’re not alone.

‘Campaign to End Loneliness’ is committed to breaking down barriers and stigma and putting an end to loneliness across the country, and the website features a wealth of information and resources.


Abbie Solish, Adrienne Perry, Patricia M. Minnes (2009). Participation of Children with and without Disabilities in Social, Recreational and Leisure Activities.

Azin Taheri, A. Perry, Patricia M. Minnes (2016). Exploring factors that impact activity participation of children and adolescents with severe developmental disabilities: Factors that impact activity participation.

Eric Emerson, Nicola Fortune, Gwynnyth Llewellyn, Roger Stancliffe (2020). Loneliness, social support, social isolation and wellbeing among working age adults with and without disability: Cross-sectional study.

Suzie Beart, Debbie Hawkins, Biza Stenfert Kroese, Paul Smithson, Inigo Tolosa (2001). Barriers to accessing leisure opportunities for people with learning disabilities.

Rebecca Haythorne, Lina Gega, Peter Knapp, Hannah Crawford (2021). What are the barriers and facilitators to participation in active recreation for people with learning disabilities? A scoping review.


Photo by Sasha Freemind on Unsplash.

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