Jennifer Byrne

Lost in Space

The Strange Mind of a Half Bright, Half Not-So-Bright Person

Nonverbal disability feels like having two separate intelligence levels.

Posted Oct 30, 2017

At a barbecue last summer at the home of one my husband’s colleagues, I started out the day with my social skills in top form. I managed to put together a flattering outfit, I brought the requisite side dish (store-bought), and I was friendly and interesting right out of the gate. My witty observations about everyone’s mutual boss walked a perfect line between appropriate and outrageous, and my insightful views on the politics of the day prompted impressed nods all around. I could see my husband starting to relax into the enjoyment of watching me spin my word magic, like Charlotte the spider and her web.

Then, for some inexplicable reason, I decided to leave the area just below the backyard deck, where everyone had been hanging out. I’d been leaning semi-comfortably against a beam connected to the deck’s rafters, and the minute I stepped away, I knew it was a mistake.

The first thing I felt was a sticky residue on my hair, followed quickly by the sense that my head was somehow affixed to the beam. A second cautious attempt to move confirmed it: I was stuck. “Oh, watch out!” The party’s hostess said, trying to be polite and giggle at the same time. “We put flypaper up on that beam. I didn’t realize you were leaning on it that hard!” Laughter, this time more of an “at-me” than “with-me” variety, rang out. Desperate to make it stop, I tore myself away from the paper with a decisive Band-Aid rip. This enabled me to break free, but the sudden jarring detachment caused me to spill my drink on my shirt. I was no word-spinning spider; I was the thing caught in the web. The hostess graciously got me a napkin. I wiped off as much of the wine stain as possible, and a few jokes about a potential The Fly remake later, the flypaper incident was relegated to old news. Still, I could see that, at least on a small scale, people were struggling to reconcile the clever, articulate person they’d first met with the person who could become ensnared in a trap designed to outsmart flies. I suspect more than one person bestowed me with a Darwin Award in their heads.

This wasn’t exactly a freak incident for me, or even a particularly extreme one. As a person with a condition called nonverbal learning disability (NVLD), occurrences like this are the story of my life.

Here are some other stories: I once rammed into my own house with my car. I’ve gotten seriously lost inside an amusement park maze for little kids. When staying at the homes of in-laws, I've accidentally wandered into said in-laws’ bedrooms in the night. My own home is so messy, I once felt compelled to hire a cleaning service specializing in crime scenes to clean it. I never fold clothes, because I seriously can’t do it; the same goes for wrapping presents. I sometimes have trouble telling time on an analog clock. Learning to tie my shoes was like mastering particle physics.

Yet to speak to me, you’d think I was not only "normal" but above average. And when it comes to talking, writing, or anything that involves words, I am. When it comes to every other area of human functioning, I’m really, really not. NVLD is a relatively unknown condition and is much less prevalent than learning disabilities like dyslexia. Children and adults with this condition have excellent verbal skills, but very poor visual-spatial, fine motor, organizational, and executive functioning skills. Many of us are bad at math, too.

The condition is diagnosed by assessing the disparity in IQ between the verbal sub-index and the performance IQ sub-index (which measures all things nonverbal). It turns out my verbal IQ is 138 ("very superior"), while the more visual-spatial performance IQ is 79 ("borderline intellectual functioning"). I once found the equivalent of this in a now-obsolete classification system from 1916—a 79 IQ would place me in the category below “dullness” (below dullness!) and just above “definite feeble-mindedness.” According to the neuropsychologists who tested me, my verbal/nonverbal split is striking, in that it occurs in less than one percent of the population (base rate 0.2 percent).

Oftentimes, this split makes me feel like I have not quite multiple personalities, but multiple intellects. There’s a bright person and a somewhat mentally impaired person, and they’re both sharing space in my head, running my everyday life with varying degrees of success. Maybe the most frustrating part is that the intelligent side of me is fully aware of the impaired side of me, but can do nothing to fix it, except talk a reasonably good game, I guess.

This blog will chronicle my everyday experiences with nonverbal learning disability and will provide information from experts on the condition, which is not yet listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. I hope to increase awareness of this condition so that more kids (and adults) who live with this condition can be correctly diagnosed and treated. I also hope to encourage a sense of community among those living in all parts of the world with this under-recognized condition. You are far from alone. Fortunately, this blog will be written, not driven, navigated, folded, or calculated. For now, anyway, I’m showing my good side.