My Life with Nonverbal Learning Disability

How this misunderstood condition affects the everyday

Posted Sep 30, 2015

Until I got my diagnosis, I often thought I was stupid.

I struggled using can openers. My shapes in geometry class were unrecognizable. I’d get lost on my way from a friend’s apartment to the car parked right outside. I couldn’t hear language in non-literal terms. And I was so awful at social cues that the girl I had my first kiss with had to voice the words “hint hint” after telling me she’s wearing chapstick.

Sometime in my teen years, I became incredibly verbal and went from “idiot” to “quirky.” But I still couldn’t properly cut fruit or make eye contact without excessive effort. I felt very embarrassed during the times I couldn’t hide it. I thought it was a failure on my part, not something out of my control.

What led me on the hunt for a diagnosis was a well-intentioned buff guy. I was at the gym, in my mid-twenties, when he pointed out I was doing a workout wrong. He tried to show me how to do it, and I fully understood intellectually what he was saying. But no amount of him showing me what to do helped me learn. A brain disconnect never seemed so obvious to me.

After some research and tests, I was diagnosed with nonverbal learning disability (NLD). 

NLD is a neurological condition characterized by significant discrepancies between nonverbal and verbal skills. According to Stanford School of Medicine, the main areas where people with NLD struggle are motor skills, visual-spatial organization and perception of social cues. This affects: coordination; reading body language; fine motor skills (such as tying shoes); handwriting; putting together puzzles; seeing the big picture versus just the details; understanding symbols; adjusting to change; finding destinations; visualization; and more. We tend to compensate with excellent memories and advanced speech.

Some research suggests NLD is caused by brain damage in the right hemisphere. One study in 2011 out of Michigan State University found brain cysts or lesions in 25 percent of those with NLD (compared to four percent of those with Asperger’s Syndrome or neither condition). They were mainly located in the area responsible for visual-spatial reasoning. A 2013 study, also out of Michigan State University, even found that children ages eight to 18 with NLD had smaller spleniums than those with other learning disabilities or no learning disabilities at all. The splenium connects the left and right hemispheres of the brain and serves areas related to visual and spatial functioning. It would explain a lot, and these studies alone have some fighting for NLD to be a separate diagnosis in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders).

NLD and Asperger’s Syndrome (AS) are often compared to each other. I keep running into the statement that up to 80% of children who meet the criteria for AS also meet the criteria for NLD, but I can’t find the Yale Child-Study Group study it’s referring to. But I wouldn’t be surprised, since the two conditions share so many symptoms. Dr. David Dinklage of Cambridge Hospital pointed out in an article on the Asperger/Autism Network that people with Asperger’s tend to possess more severe social impairments than those with NLD, and tend to have symptoms not required for an NLD diagnosis, such as repetitive movements and rigorous interest in one topic. People with Asperger’s also tend to be visual learners and those with NLD auditory learners, according to Dr. Sheldon H. Horowitz of the National Center for Learning Disabilities. This is perhaps why visual-spatial deficit is not necessary for an Asperger’s diagnosis like it is an NLD diagnosis.

Getting an NLD diagnosis, for me, was a huge relief. Finally I had an explanation. But I don’t use it as an excuse. I’m the type of person who is always trying to better myself. This mindset has helped me overcome a lot of the setbacks of NLD. I’ve turned my literal interpretations of language into comedy (I write humor and perform improv and standup). I learned social cues. I’ve managed to become a good driver, a good singer and a good musician (after more trial and error than I’d like to admit). I’ve become flexible and at times spontaneous (although I’d like to think my precise scheduling has been in everyone’s best interest). And even though my mind focuses on details, I’ve become so good at defining the big picture that I’ve made a career of it in journalism.

What I haven’t been able to overcome on occasion gets me down. While I don’t subscribe to traditional gender roles, I still have this lingering desire to come to my future wife’s aid in tasks like fixing the car or the sink or to teach my future children how to throw a football correctly. One former girlfriend even asked me how I expect to be a good parent lacking these basic skills. I responded with: “That’s not what makes someone a good parent.” I’ll still make sure my future children learn what they need to learn in life, even if I’m not the one teaching it.

I realize not everyone with NLD fares as well as I have. I’m part of a Facebook group of nearly 850 people with NLD, and many of them are out of work, don’t drive or don’t have strong social groups. This is not to brag, but to point out that this can be a debilitating condition. It needs to be taken seriously and people with the condition need more access to resources.

Over time, I stopped thinking I was unintelligent. I just have some setbacks. Like everyone else.