Nonverbal learning disorder (NVLD) or nonverbal learning disability, is a neurological condition marked by a collection of academic—and sometimes social—difficulties experienced by children of average or superior intelligence. NVLD may include problems drawing, writing, telling time using analog clocks, or otherwise manipulating visual-spatial information. Tasks that require motor coordination, such as tying shoes, may also be impaired. NVLD may also include problems with executive function and higher-order information processing, math and social skills.
As diverse as these skills appear, each arena is tied to the right hemisphere. It is important to note that only one or two skill sets may be compromised in NVLD. If a child's intellectual abilities are strong in all but one or more of the above areas, testing for NVLD may be warranted.
The signs and symptoms of a nonverbal learning disorder are difficult to pinpoint, as so many deficits potentially fall under this umbrella term, and most children do not exhibit all behaviors. Typically, 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. Deficits in fine and gross motor skills result in difficulty with handwriting, using scissors and tools, riding a bicycle and participating in sports.
Behaviorally, 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. A fear of new situations may make it difficult to meet new people and make friends.
A child 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. Social deficits may include underdeveloped or absent skills that most people learn intuitively, through observation rather than by instruction. Some children 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. Some experts argue that in certain cases, Asperger's and nonverbal learning disorder may even be the same condition viewed in different ways.
Nonverbal learning disorder is thought to be related to a deficit in the right cerebral hemisphere of the brain, where nonverbal processing occurs. Over time, the child may develop systems, including rote memories of past experiences, as a guide for how to behave in new situations rather than responding to specific social cues.
There is no single recommended treatment plan for nonverbal learning disorder. 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, 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. Because children are aware that they struggle in one or more areas, 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.