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Nonverbal Learning Disorder

NLD, or sometimes referred to as NVLD, impacts the ability to learn from and use nonverbal information, which can result in academic, social, and emotional challenges. People with this disorder have trouble understanding the “big picture.” They often have problems with reading comprehension, math, and implied meaning. They tend to learn best by listening.​

Despite the name of this disorder, those who have NLD are far from nonverbal. In fact, verbal skills are their greatest asset, although they may sometimes talk nonstop and actually say nothing. But because they are adept with language, verbal reasoning, and rote memory, their disabilities frequently are not detected until middle or high school. They often possess a large store of information and have a well-developed vocabulary, but as they progress in school, comprehension becomes challenging because they have difficulty inferring, interpreting, and reading between the lines, and as implied learning replaces rote learning.

Since social interaction relies heavily on nonverbal cues (facial expression, tone, body language), these children may be socially awkward. They tend to be overly literal in their interpretation of social cues, missing the nuances others intuitively understand. It is difficult for them to make and keep friends. They also tend to have difficulty understanding cause-and-effect relationships and anticipating the consequences of their actions. This can lead to emotional crises called “meltdowns” where the child is overcome with frustration and confusion.

There are five major areas in which children with NLD show weaknesses.

1. Visual and spatial awareness

Many kids with NLD have trouble understanding visual imagery. For example when they are asked to copy a shape like a cube they produce profound distortions.  They are unable to accurately perceive the cube and the relationships between the forms that make up the cube; so they can’t copy it.

They also have difficulty grasping the relationships between things they see and where their body is in relation to those things, which can make them physically awkward; they often trip or bump into things.

2. Higher-Order Comprehension

This is the ability to identify the main idea of a story or manuscript, identify the details that support the main idea, and identify the relationships between them. This affects their ability to understand what they are reading, or to write or tell a story effectively.

It also affects note-taking. Some NLD children try to copy down everything the teacher says because they don’t know what’s important and what’s peripheral. Sometimes when they don’t know what’s important, they take down nothing, and it appears they aren’t paying attention. Sometimes they copy all the unimportant details and none of the main points.

3. Social Communication

Most kids with non-verbal learning disorders have a difficult time reading emotion in facial cues and/or body language, so they don’t know what’s going on in social interactions. They miss the social patterns that other kids pick up automatically, so they cannot determine what the appropriate behavior is in any given situation.

Because social communication can be strenuous, kids with NLD often focus—sometimes obsessively—on technology. Chat rooms and video games give them a chance to escape from making mistakes with nonverbal cues.

4. Math Concepts

Many kids with NLD are very good at rote learning, and they are able to do well in math by memorizing data. As they get older, however, they struggle to solve more advanced mathematical problems that are based on recognizing concepts and patterns. Even if they’ve seen a problem before, if it’s approached differently or modified slightly they have trouble recognizing it.
5. Executive Functions

Executive functions are a set of skills we use to organize our thinking, plan and carry out actions, and figure out how to solve problems. Most kids with NLD have weaknesses in these organizing and planning functions. For instance they struggle with breaking down a project into smaller chunks, or determining steps that need to be taken to get something done.

They don’t understand what it means to “figure something out”, and they need step-by-step help to get through that process.

Weaknesses in these five areas occur on a spectrum, and occur in varying combinations with each other, making each child’s difficulty with nonverbal learning look different.

On the one hand there are kids who are high functioning but socially awkward, a little clumsy, a little disorganized. Other kids are more pervasively affected, and they function with more difficulty in many areas; they may struggle to learn anything that isn’t rote or literal.
Many of those with nonverbal learning disabilities may have a different diagnosis—often autism or ADHD. Those diagnoses may list their symptoms or behaviors, but don’t fully explain them, resulting in the child not receiving all the help they need.

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 doesn’t understand what’s being discussed, what he reads, or the problem he’s being asked to solve. That’s the NLD: you won’t pay attention if you can’t understand.

Similarly, a child diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder will be described as having social and communication deficits. Those behaviors, too, can reflect NLD: being unable to recognize patterns in facial expression, body language, and other forms of nonverbal communication can make kids unresponsive socially.

Three important areas where children are struggling apart from other diagnoses are usually higher-order comprehension, math concepts, and visual and spatial relations. By also recognizing their NLD, they can get help that strengthens or compensates for weaknesses in those core areas.
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