What is Nonverbal Learning Disorder?
When we think of learning disorders, we tend to think of kids who have a hard time learning to read. But there’s another kind of learning disorder, non-verbal learning disorder, or NLD for short. NLD affects other, “non-verbal” kinds of learning like the ability to notice patterns and learn concepts. These include visual patterns, social patterns, and concepts in language and math.
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.
In school, kids with NLD usually have no problem memorizing facts, but they have trouble with ideas and organizing information. Kids with NLD can also be physically clumsy and awkward because they have a hard time understanding what they see and how things take up space.
Like kids with autism, kids with NLD often have trouble picking up social cues. In fact, many kids with NLD also have an autism diagnosis. Non-verbal social cues are a kind of pattern that’s hard for these kids to read.
Sometimes kids with NLD are great at the early stages of math because they’re good at memorizing. But more advanced problems get tricky because they involve noticing and applying a pattern.
NLD also affects the set of skills we use to plan and organize our thinking. So kids have trouble breaking down a project into steps, knowing what skills to use for a given problem or figuring out how to organize an essay.
Lots of kids with NLD have all these issues. But some just have a few. For example, they might just struggle with planning and social cues.
Adults tend to realize something’s going on with these kids around 5th grade. That’s when school becomes less about memorizing and more about applying concepts. For example, kids need to be able to grasp the important idea from a passage or take notes on the main ideas of what a teacher says. NLD makes those skills much harder to learn, but with the right support and strategies kids with NLD can catch up with their peers.
What Are the Symptoms of Nonverbal Learning Disorder?
NLD varies from person to person, however, commonly reported symptoms include the following:
- Trouble recognizing nonverbal cues (facial expressions, body language)
- Early speech and language acquisition (talks “like an adult” from a young age)
- Poor coordination; seen as “clumsy” or always “getting in the way”
- Poor fine motor skills (difficulty using scissors, tying shoes, etc.)
- Always asking questions, to the point of being repetitive or interrupting the regular flow of conversation
- Needs to verbally “label” information in order to understand it; difficulty comprehending unsaid or spatial information
- Visual-spatial difficulties (discrimination of differences of objects, visualization of images, determining one’s location of body in space)
- Extremely “literal;” struggles with sarcasm, innuendo, or other linguistic nuances
- “Naïve” or overly-trusting
- Difficulty coping with change
- Trouble following multi-step directions
- Difficulty making generalizations or seeing the “big picture”
- Overall challenges often masked by highly advanced verbal skills
ADHD and NLD or NVLD
NLD is often misdiagnosed or confused for ADHD, due to shared symptoms like social skills difficulties, anxiousness, disorganization, and more. While ADHD and NLD are both brain-based conditions, each has different causes, and the appropriate interventions for the two conditions are not the same.