Nonverbal Disorder among Adults

Not everyone understands a “subtle hint” sent by a suggestive eye or hand movement. Some will be confused by a grin, a stern voice, or general instructions. The nonverbal communication is a mystery to them; it’s simply tough for these individuals to decipher a form of communication most people have intuitively learned to understand. And, despite high IQs and an incredible ability to grasp verbal language at a young age, they are social outcasts who barely made it through school or were not able to hold a job. Welcome to the world of the adult with Nonverbal learning disorders (NLD).

Often misdiagnosed, NLD is a learning disorder that’s not as common as its verbal counterpart. It strikes a small percentage of the general population (.1% to 1.0 %); is often mislabeled as “emotional disturbance” or ADD and appears among students with exceptional or “gifted” abilities to grasp verbal skills at an early age. Also, it is a condition that doesn’t present itself at a young age, like other learning disabilities; it is more prevalent in the teen years (mostly among females). And, in the adult years – if gone undiagnosed – its effects are strongly felt (at its most debilitating).

Unlike the auditory or visual processing disorder, there’s little evidence that it is a genetic disorder. However, brain-scans reveal that it is a condition that does affect the right hemisphere of the brain. It’s not known how this happened. Brain injury or trauma, childhood diseases and other congenital conditions are seen as culprits.

As its name suggests, nonverbal learning disability is a syndrome that affects a person’s ability to understand nonverbal communication. Nonverbal communication usually involves “body language,” facial expression or tone of voice. This form of communication is intuitively learned and processed into meaning by most people. A person with NLD will have difficulties decoding this form of communication.

There are four areas commonly affected by NLD. They are:

1. “Motoric”: an individual will have a lack of coordination; severe balance problems; and difficulties with handwriting skills. 2. Visual-spatial organization: the individual will have a lack of image; poor visual recall, faulty spatial perception; difficulties with executive functioning; and problems with spatial relations (will not understand giving a person his/her “space”). 3. Social: the person will be unable to comprehend nonverbal communication; have difficulties adjusting to transitions and novel situations; and deficits in social interaction. 4. Sensory: the individual’s sensory modes – visual, auditory, tactile, taste or olfactory abilities are affected.

Adults appear to be more affected by this disability than children. In part, it has more to do with misinformation than with something they developed later in life. Often there doesn’t appear to be a learning disorder. Children with NLD have stronger verbal skills. As a result, the child with this condition will “talk like an adult” as early as three-years-old. Also, the child appears to score high on IQ tests, and have good memory for rote learning. With these conditions, a child with NLD may be labeled as “gifted.”

However, not every symptom of NLD indicates brilliance. Children with NLD will appear awkward; their acquisition of motor skills is slow. They may have problems grasping the ability to ride a bike or kick a ball. Even the act of cutting with scissors or tying shoe laces is difficult for them. On a social level, the child may appear confused and have no clue to understanding nonverbal cues or tone of voices that may indicate an implicit meaning. Also, they seem not to understand directions, and are often asking questions repeatedly after something has been explained. Some will view a student with NLD as chatty, immature or rude. This is when the student gets misdiagnosed with a harsher label of “emotional disturbance.”

An adult with this condition will experience some highs and low in their academic or occupational careers. Many of them will suffer from low self-esteem, lack of confidence and socialization problems. The characteristics of an adult who may have NLD are:

Performing tasks differently from day to day. Poor social skills Have trouble reading maps Short attention span Easily distracted Can’t write well, but are good readers (or vice-versa) Easily overwhelmed

Also, an adult with NLD – yet not diagnosed in his/her early years – may suffer from “burn-out” or “nervous breakdowns.” Often, their lack of organization or inability to understand general instructions may cause friction in the workplace, incidence of job termination, and the inability to hold down an occupation. Also, on a social level, they may not be able to sustain a relationship or keep many friends. As a result, they may be prone to higher levels of depression.

Assessment for this condition is not easy during the childhood years. However, for an adult who suspects he or she may have this condition, they need to seek the help of a psychologist, or an organization dealing with NLD. Also, community colleges have special resource centers where college students who suspect they have a learning disability can get assessed (of course, it helps if the adult who suspects he/she has this condition is enrolled in the school).

NLD has flown under eyes of educators and parents and has given individuals with this condition a false diagnosis that may affect them in a negative way. As adults, these individual will be daunted by their disability, never being able to enjoy a healthy social life. They may never find success in school and employment. They didn’t need to have this happen.

Bibliography (or for further reading on the subject)

“Nonverbal Disabilities for Adults” Retrieved 2009; Thompson, Sue, M.A., C.E., “Nonverbal Learning Disorders” 1996; retrieved 2009;