Centra Articles

Nonverbal Learning Disabilities

By: Gail Silverstein, PhD

People with nonverbal learning disabilities (NLD) are often as much a puzzle to themselves as they are to other people. They frequently have good, even excellent, verbal skills, read early and well, and appear to be extremely bright. Many people with NLD can memorize just about anything. They are often described as being like a “little professor”because of the way they talk. Yet there are confusing gaps in their abilities, things which they unexpectedly do not understand. They often don’t even understand enough to verbalize exactly what is confusing them.

People with NLD tend to lose the forest for the trees. They can handle rote, factual material extremely well, but have trouble integrating this information and making inferences from it. Their thinking is logical and detail-oriented, but they have trouble understanding the “big picture” or main idea. It is often hard for them to generalize from one situation to another, similar, situation. They are most comfortable in familiar, predictable environments and may have varying degrees of difficulty handling new situations or unexpected changes in plans. They may interpret things in an over-literal way.

People with NLD find it easier to work with verbal material than visual material. For example, they may have trouble understanding maps, charts, graphs, diagrams, and similar presentations of material. It would be better to tell them what to do than to show them what to do.

Academically, their weakest areas are generally reading comprehension, writing, and math, especially the more spatial aspects of math such as geometry, fractions and decimals. However, academic problems may not show themselves in elementary school where much of the material one is expected to learn is factual and rote. Some people with NLD do not begin to struggle academically until they reach middle school or beyond, when the material becomes more abstract and there are greater demands for inference rather than just recall of facts. Their organizational skills are often poor and they may be mis-diagnosed as having ADHD.

People with NLD can have varying degrees of social problems. It is estimated that over 65% of communication is nonverbal, and people with NLD may have trouble reading nonverbal cues such as gestures, facial expressions, body language, tone of voice, etc. Therefore, many social situations are confusing for them. This becomes more of a problem as children grow into adolescence, when social interactions become more complex and subtle. As a result, people with NLD often have few friends or a history of troubled relationships with peers or they may withdraw from social interactions. They are often described as naive and may become targets for teasing and bullying. Not surprisingly, anxiety and depression are common.

It should be emphasized that there is a wide spectrum of severity of nonverbal learning disabilities, with some people being extremely high-functioning, while others are more impaired. Not all people with NLD show all of the characteristics discussed above. The best way to sort out what the problem is and what should be done to help is by neuropsychological testing.

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