Nonverbal Learning Disorder

Definition

A nonverbal learning disorder, or nonverbal learning disability, is a neurological condition marked by a collection of academic and social difficulties experienced by otherwise intelligent or even highly gifted children. The social skills that most people learn intuitively, through observation rather than by instruction, are lacking in children with nonverbal learning disorder. They are unable to perceive subtle environmental cues or learn by simply watching. Children with nonverbal learning disorder have trouble receiving and interpreting nonverbal forms of communication, such as body language, facial expressions, the concept of personal space, or when “enough is enough” of certain types of behavior.

Symptoms

The signs and symptoms of a nonverbal learning disorder are similar to those of Asperger's Syndrome, although often less severe. Some experts argue that Asperger's and nonverbal learning disorder may even be the same condition viewed in different ways. In spite of a large vocabulary and strong language, memory, and verbal skills, the child has difficulty with reading comprehension and higher forms of math, especially mathematical word problems. Poor physical coordination, awkwardness, resistance to change, lack of common sense, fear of new situations, concrete, literal, and focused thinking while missing the bigger picture, and difficulty in social situations are all traits associated with a nonverbal learning disorder. Inadequate fine and gross motor skills result in difficulty with handwriting, using scissors and tools, riding a bicycle and participating in sports. A fear of new situations makes it difficult to meet new people and make friends. A child a with nonverbal learning disorder depends heavily on the spoken word as a primary social tool and as a result may be thought of by others as someone who talks too much.

Causes

Nonverbal learning disorders have genetic links, and result from a deficit in the right cerebral hemisphere of the brain, where nonverbal processing occurs. The result is an imbalance of abilities between high levels of intelligence, rote memory, and verbal skills, alongside low levels of fine and gross motor skills, visual-spatial skills, and social competency. The nonverbal processing area of the brain does not provide automatic feedback that tells the child what to do or say in a new situation, such as being introduced to a stranger. Over time, then, the child develops a system of using rote memories of similar past experiences as a guide for how to behave in new situations, rather than responding to the specific social cues of the new person. This leads to the socially awkward characteristic of nonverbal learning disorders. 

Treatments

Since nonverbal learning disorder has yet to be recognized as a clear, diagnosable disorder, there is no single recommended treatment plan. As with any learning disorder, however, children are best served by early intervention and support. After observation and an initial assessment to determine a child’s specific needs, teaching professionals and other school-based professionals can put a plan into place for both social and academic accommodations necessary for improvement. These interventions may include extra practice time for developing skills in pattern recognition and organizing thoughts, and counseling to help the child better understand social expectations. At-home strategies can be developed to reinforce school-based learning and interventions. Psychotherapy may also be appropriate, since children with nonverbal learning disabilities may be at higher risk than typically developing children of having generalized and social anxiety disorders. Treatment approaches for different children vary with the type and degree of symptoms displayed by individual children.

References

Nonverbal Learning Disorder (NLD or NVLD) University of Michigan website. Updated November 2012. Accessed September 19, 2017.

Quick Facts on Non-Verbal Learning Disorder. Child-Mind Institute website. Accessed September 19, 2017.

Miller C. How Can We Help Kids with Nonverbal Learning Disorder? Child Mind Institute. Accessed September 19, 2017.

Mammarella IC, Ghisi M, Bomba M. Anxiety and depression in children with nonverbal learning disabilities, reading disabilities, or typical development. Journal of Learning Disabilities. March 1, 2016;49(2):130-139 (first published online March 2014).

Last reviewed 03/05/2018