What Is A Nonverbal Learning Disorder
A nonverbal learning disorder is a neurological condition believed to affect the right hemisphere of the brain. This disorder can significantly impact four major areas of functioning: visual/spatial/organizational, social, motor, and academic. Children with NVLD present a puzzling and challenging profile to their parents and teachers. They have definite strengths but also significant weaknesses. This profile often leads parents and teachers to overestimate the childs ability and set unrealistic demands. This can lead to frustration and other emotional problems in the child. NVLD is frequently misdiagnosed or not diagnosed until late elementary or middle school years. It persists into adulthood and is often accompanied by anxiety, depression, social isolation, and relationship and employment difficulties. It can be present along with other disabilities or conditions. It is a clinical diagnosis and currently there are no standard criteria to define it from the medical or educational fields. It is not a category in special education, but children may receive special services if they meet state criteria for Specific Learning Disabilities , Other Health Impaired , Emotional Behavior Disorders , or Autism.
What Are Nonverbal Learning Disabilities
Trouble with social skills is a key challenge of NVLD.
NVLD isnt a learning disability, but the difficulties can impact learning.
There are ways to help people improve skills and manage the challenges.
Nonverbal learning disabilities is a term that refers to challenges with a specific group of skills. These skills arent language-based like reading and writing are. Theyre nonverbal skills, and they include motor, visual-spatial, and social skills.
NVLD isnt an official diagnosis. But the challenges are real and can have an impact on learning and on working. They also make social interaction very hard.
People with these difficulties often have strong verbal skills. But they may not know when someones being sarcastic. They may talk a lot, but not share in a socially appropriate way. Theres also a physical aspect. People with NVLD often have problems with coordination.
These are lifelong struggles, but they arent related to intelligence. With support, people may improve these skills and learn social strategies that can help. Still, theyre often misunderstood and judged, and they may have a hard time fitting in.
Living With Nld In College
Going to college knowing I had diagnosed NLD was an incredibly scary situation, and I wasnt sure how I would handle the new social or educational environment. Luckily, I went to a high school that accommodated my learning disability with an Individualized Education Program, so I was able to excel despite having the disorder. Despite this plus side to having NLD in high school, the struggles making and keeping friends persisted until my senior year, which took a toll on my self-esteem.
Despite being full of anxiety and certain my NLD would ruin the college experience for me, I sought help at the learning commons of my university, and it was the best decision I could have made. I still had a hard time making many friends due to inevitably misunderstanding social cues, but I have learned to compensate for my social discrepancies through cognitive behavioral therapy.
I get extra time at the learning commons for tests and quizzes, and I happen to go to a university that accommodates my disability quite well. I understand not everyone who has NLD and goes to school gets the help they need, but I hope to spread awareness about how serious NLD is as a learning disability and encourage those who have it to seek any services available that can help. Its almost impossible to succeed in an educational setting without learning services.
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The Main Symptoms Of Nvld
Common Symptoms of NVLD include the following:
- Difficulty determining where objects are in the environment in relation to their self:This includes poor physical awareness, which may show up as clumsiness as the person has difficulty orienting their body to their surroundings. It can also lead to what appear to be inappropriate social interactions, such as standing too close or too far from someone.
- Difficulty following spatial directions and recalling spatial relationships: Problems with spatial processing make it difficult to process directions when traveling or determining where they are in relation to their environment.
- Good verbal skills: They have decent or excellent vocabularies. They may be able to memorize long lists of words, yet have difficulty understanding what the words mean. They may be able to read the words of a story, yet have trouble identifying the overall meaning and main points.
- Frequent difficulties in spatial or visual-spatial processing: This includes difficulty with shape, size or location or direction of objects. This can make it difficult to assemble puzzles or complete hands-on building projects.
What Is Nonverbal Learning Disorder
Nonverbal learning disorder , otherwise known as nonverbal learning disability, may be the most overlooked, misunderstood, and under-diagnosed learning disability. The brain-based condition is characterized by poor visual, spatial, and organizational skills difficulty recognizing and processing nonverbal cues and poor motor performance.
The name non-verbal learning disorder is confusing it suggests that those with NLD do not speak, but quite the opposite is true. Approximately 93 percent of communication is non-verbal body language, facial expressions, tone of voice. Those with NLD have trouble interpreting this non-verbal language, relying on the seven percent of communication that is verbal to understand what others mean.
Because individuals with NLD rely so much on verbal expression, given their difficulties with body language, facial expressions, tone of voice and other cues, they often talk excessively to compensate for their difficulties a child or adult with NLD will hold you to every word you say. Most children with NLD, as a result, also have large vocabularies and outstanding memory and auditory retention.
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What Are The Symptoms
Your child may talk early and know more words than other children of the same age. However, your child may have trouble with:
- Learning how to make the shapes of the letters, especially letters like K and Y
- Copying and drawing shapes
- Writing on lines and inside of margins, jumbling words together instead of putting spaces between them, and keeping columns of numbers straight
- Spelling words that cannot be sounded out, such as the word enough
- Not recognizing words that he has previously sounded out over and over, which can make him a slow reader
Your child may also:
- Be clumsy and have many small accidents, such as spilling things
- Have trouble learning to kick or catch a ball, ride a bicycle, or tie his shoes
- Be slower than other children to learn to tell left from right
- Miss or not understand facial gestures and body language cues
- Seem out of touch with others in conversations
- Take things too literally and not understand jokes or sarcasm
Diagnosing A Nonverbal Learning Disability
What is a Nonverbal Learning Disability ?
In general, NVLD is characterized by the discrepancy between an individuals verbal and nonverbal reasoning abilities. Unlike ADHD or a Specific Learning Disorder , NVLD is not an official diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth edition . However, it provides a framework to explain areas of strength and weakness to better understand why an individual may be struggling academically, socially, emotionally, or behaviorally.
Areas of Strength
When individuals present with a NVLD, they often demonstrate relative strengths in the following areas:
- Simple, repetitive motor movements
- Learning and recall of rote, verbal material
- Single word reading and reading decoding skills
In contrast, those with NVLD present with weaknesses in the following areas:
- Visual perception, visual-spatial organization, and visuo-construction skills
- Complex motor skills
- Learning of novel information and generalizing new learning
- Visual spatial learning and memory
- Reading comprehension/Higher order comprehension and reasoning
- Visual and tactile attention
- Aspects of social, emotional, and behavioral functioning
How Can an Evaluation Be Used to Diagnosis an NVLD?
Following the Evaluation
Resources for NVLD
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What Is The Cause
NLD is caused mostly by problems in the right side of the brain. Problems during pregnancy or birth increase the risk that your child will have NLD, such as:
- A mother who smoked, drank alcohol, or was ill while pregnant
- Very long labor at birth
- Having the umbilical cord wrapped around the neck
- Premature birth or low birth weight
Serious infections as a young infant also may increase the risk. NLD affects boys and girls equally.
Children with NLD may also have autistic spectrum disorder, or other learning disorders that sometimes run in families.
How Can I Help My Child
- Find out what services are offered through your school district to help children with learning disabilities.
- Learn ways to work with your child at home. Spend regular time at home working with your child on writing, spelling, and match skills. It will help if you talk through the steps. Encourage your child to say the steps aloud as they go.
- Teach your child not to be embarrassed about having NLD. It does not mean that he is not intelligent.
- Be patient with your child. Praise your child for his efforts and for any improvement, however small.
- Look for your childâs strengths. No one knows what your child may be able to do in time, so donât set your expectations too low.
- Talk with your childs teachers to see if your child can use a computer, calculator, or other tools to help with their work.
- Help your child identify emotions and the meanings that go with facial expressions and body cues and figure out how to respond.
- If your child is anxious or depressed, seeing a mental health therapist may be helpful.
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Identifying Nonverbal Learning Disorders
Whereas language-based disabilities are usually readily apparent to parents and educators, nonverbal learning disorders routinely go unrecognized. Many of the early symptoms of nonverbal learning disabilities instill pride, rather than alarm, in parents and teachers who ordinarily applaud language-based accomplishments. This child is extremely verbose and may “speak like an adult” at two or three years of age. During early childhood, he is usually considered “gifted” by his parents and teachers. Sometimes the child with NLD has a history of hyperlexia . This child is generally an eager, enthusiastic learner who quickly memorizes rote material, only serving to reinforce the notion of his precocity.
Dr. Rourke and his associates have found that the dysfunctions associated with NLD are “less apparent at the age of 7 to 8 years . . . than at 10 to 14 years,” and that they become “progressively more apparent as adulthood approaches.” Although this child has a history of poor coordination and was probably slow to acquire motor skills, typically initial academic concerns will generate from the fact that he is not completing and/or turning in written assignments during his late elementary school years. This child produces limited written output and the process is always slow and laborious for him.
How Is It Diagnosed
Your healthcare provider will ask about your childs symptoms and medical history and examine your child. Sometimes scans of the brain will be done to screen for any physical problems.
Your child may need to see a specialist. They can do more testing and advise you about treatment. Your school district may also provide testing services for your child.
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Social/emotional Issues With Nonverbal Learning Disorder
And then there are the social emotional issues. It is thought that there is some overlap between Aspergers syndrome and nonverbal learning disorder. People with NLD dont understand nuance of tone, for instance sarcasm. They understand words in a literal way only. If you say to your child with NLD, Why dont you just throw all the clothes I just washed, dried, and folded neatly onto the floor instead of putting them away carefully in your bureau drawer, you might see your child literally throw those freshly laundered clothes on the floor.
He meant well.
What Sets It Apart From Autism Spectrum Disorder
While nonverbal learning disorders and autism spectrum disorder may overlap, there are several key differences.
- The main difference is that Autism Spectrum Disorder is a developmental disorder that is associated with delays in learning, rather than academic difficulties.
- Both disorders are associated with problems with motor skills, but it is explained in NVLD by visual-spatial organization while in autism, it is associated with sensory processing difficulties.
- While teens with autism tend to be visual learners, teens with NVLD learn better by hearing information.
- Teens with Nonverbal Learning Disorders typically have higher levels of social intelligence, but struggle with social anxiety and feeling different from others.
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What To Do If You Notice Signs Of Nonverbal Learning Disorder
If you see a combination of the NVLD symptoms listed above, make note of when and where you see these behaviors. These observations are important to have when speaking with a pediatrician or specialist.
Talk with Your Childs Teacher
Bring your list of concerns to your childs teacher and ask whether these behaviors are affecting your childs performance in the classroom. Also ask whether he or she has noticed any other learning issues in your child.
Request an Evaluation
While your pediatrician may not specialize in learning disabilities, he or she can rule out any medical issues related to the symptoms and refer your child to the right specialist. Once you have been referred to a mental health professional, he or she can test your childs speech and language, visual-spatial organization, and motor skills.2
Be Proactive and Trust Your Gut
Since children with NVLD are often articulate and well-spoken, some educators may consider NVLD interventions unnecessary. However, the symptoms of NVLD will become more apparent with age so the earlier the intervention, the better. Stand up for your child to ensure that he or she gets the right accommodations.3
How Do These Deficits Manifest In Kids With Nld
In addition to the different combinations of symptoms, kids with NLD also vary along a spectrum of severity.
One the one hand there are kids who are extremely high-functioning but socially awkward, a little clumsy, disorganizedwhat Bezsylko calls the absentminded professor type. Other kids are more pervasively affected, and they function with more difficulty in many areas. These kids often struggle to learn everything that isnt rote or literal.
At Winston Prep, a study of more than 100 students with NLD showed that there were 6 combinations of the 5 deficits. The largest group had all five of the deficits, but the second largest group had just two: social communication and executive functions.
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How Is Nld Diagnosed
Typically, NLD is diagnosed through a neuropsychological evaluation by a psychologist who will assess all the areas mentioned above. The evaluation would include a measure of intelligence, academic tests, visual-spatial and visual-motor tests, language tests, tests of executive function skills, and measures of social and behavioral functioning. A full test battery can be quite helpful in distinguishing a nonverbal learning disability from other disorders. This sort of specialized testing, which includes a formal diagnosis, is not typically provided by the school system. While testing completed through the public schools will describe the concerns, the evaluator will not give a formal diagnosis, as that is not the typical function of a school psychologist. If having a formal diagnosis and complete documentation of the childs strength and weaknesses is important to you, you will need to get an evaluation completed by a licensed psychologist who works in private practice or in a clinic or hospital setting.
What Nvld Can Look Like
While trouble with social skills is a key difficulty, challenges may show up in other ways, too. Here are some examples:
Remembers information but doesnt know why its important
Pays attention to details but misses the big picture
Struggles with reading comprehension
Struggles with math, especially word problems
Is physically awkward and uncoordinated
Thinks in literal, concrete terms
Misses social cues and misreads situations
Stands too close to people
Is oblivious to peoples reactions
Changes the subject abruptly in conversation
Has trouble adjusting to changes
Has difficulty organizing thoughts
Learn more about trouble with social skills and what can cause it.
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Signs Of Nonverbal Learning Disorder
Some signs of NLD:
- Excellent recallthey remember everything they hear
- Poor visual memorythey dont remember the things they see
- Good at reading
- Excellent verbal expression and reasoning skills
- Difficulties with written expression
- Poor handwriting
- Spatial awareness difficulties, for instance problems with estimating size, shape, distance, and poor sense of direction
- Inability to correctly read facial expressions or hand gestures, tones of voice, and social cues
Because the focus on learning in the early elementary school years is on reading, NLD can easilyand often doesgo unnoticed and undiagnosed. Reading ability is the sole indication used by educators to gauge academic success. And since NLD children read well, no one pays much attention to their other, very real difficulties.
A More Comprehensive Diagnosis
NLD is not one of the official diagnoses mental health professionals and schools use to categorize kids with psychiatric or learning problems. Kids who have it usually have other diagnosesoften autism or ADHD. But while those diagnoses list their symptoms or behaviors, they dont fully explain them, argues Bezsylko.
For instance, if a child is disorganized and inattentive, he is likely to be diagnosed with ADHD. But he may well be disorganized and inattentive because he doesnt understand whats being discussed, what he reads, or the problem hes been asked to solve. Thats where NLD comes in. You cant pay attention if you cant understand, notes Bezsylko.
Similarly, a child diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder will be described as having social and communication deficits. Those behaviors, too, can reflect NLDnot being able recognize patterns in facial expression, body language, and other forms of nonverbal communication can make kids unresponsive socially.
Take the kids in the Winston Prep study who had all five of the deficits. Most of them had a diagnosis of either ADHD or autism spectrum disorder. But those diagnoses dont identify three important areas where they are struggling, notes Bezsylko: higher-order comprehension, math concepts, and visual and spatial relations. Unless their NLD is recognized, theyre not likely to get help that strengthens or compensates for weaknesses in those core areas.