Nonverbal Learning Disability

Meet Neil.  He’s a high school sophomore.  His standardized test scores are always well above average, yet his grades dwindle in the D to F range.  He applies himself—in fact, works steadily during class time and doesn’t chat with other students.  So why do his assignments go astray from one day to the next, with no obvious rhyme or reason?

Neil’s backpack and binders spill over with tattered, half-finished papers, crumpled notices from the guidance office and last semester’s failed test he could have retaken for a passing grade.  He puts off any type of writing assignment and avoids art-oriented projects at all costs.  Neil worries incessantly about arriving in class on time and seems tense when he exits from school.  Though if asked, he’ll tell you he had a good day, no problems.  It’s only a day or two later that his parents receive a phone call from the dean’s office reporting truancy or the history teacher’s e-mail regarding the big semester project due on Friday, that Neil has barely started.

Neil lives in a confusing and frustrating world of overwhelming tasks and messages difficult to decode.  His days are stressful and uncertain from the moment he arises to well into the night, when he lies awake, filled with anxiety.  He tries harder than anyone else.  He has to; Neil has a nonverbal learning disability.

Nonverbal learning disability, or NVLD, as it is referred to, is an emerging phenomena in contemporary neuropsychology.  Rather than a condition limited to a specific set of unvarying symptoms, NVLD is a syndrome consisting of strengths and deficits.  Common areas affected include cognition, intuition, organization, processing and visual-spatial skills.  Those afflicted may have deficits in one, some or all of these categories.  As Dr. Kathleen Briseno, Assistant Director for Student Services and Special Education at Community Unit School District 203 in Naperville, Illinois describes it, “It is a disorder in the social area, such as understanding subtle cues in the nonverbal communication world.”  At this time, there is no known cause of NVLD, though it is thought to be genetic and related to damage in the myelin tissues of the brain—in other words, the paths messages take to connect and make sense of data.

Students who have NVLD may struggle with mathematics, reading comprehension and abstract ideas.  They may also be deficient in problem-solving skills.  “They often get lost, even in environments that are very familiar.  For example, they can’t find their way efficiently to their classroom, despite being in the same room for an entire school year,” according to Dr. Carla Hearl Morton, a Neuropsychologist, Clinical Psychologist and NVLD specialist located in Chicago, IL.  While most students can easily solve the problem of a forgotten backpack, students with NVLD cannot fathom what to do.  In these situations, children with NVLD may become overly anxious or turn to avoidance techniques.

Additional troubles can be experienced with social circumstances.  Dr. Morton says, “Because learning typically occurs in social situations, (in effect, a teacher communicating with students in an interactive environment), being able to navigate social situations is an integral part of learning in a typical school setting.  A great deal of information is conveyed by teachers through nonverbal means . . . .  Students with social deficits may not appreciate facial expressions or verbal inflection signaling that a concept is particularly important, or be able to understand sarcasm or other paralinguistic techniques that individuals use on a daily basis.  As such, students with social difficulties miss out on some information.”  Dr. Briseno adds, “Since students with NVLD do not learn social skills by just observing others, they must be taught social skill through direct instruction . . . . Sometimes educators . . . look at specific characteristics a child exhibits and have tons of strategies to work with the child.”

This social aspect of a nonverbal learning disability can also affect friendships.  The inability to interpret facial expressions or body language of others, along with the difficulty in initiating or maintaining a conversation, makes bonding with others intimidating and strenuous.  Dr. Morton notes that, “You may see a child who may appear to be on the autism spectrum; however, individuals with NVLD have an interest in having peer relationships, unlike some individuals with an autism spectrum disorder.”

Physically, individuals with a nonverbal learning disability often exhibit impairment with gross motor skills, such as hopping, skipping or bike riding.  They may have poor balance.  According to Dr. Morton, “Often these children have difficulty moving their body in space and may appear clumsy or uncoordinated.  In addition, individuals with NVLD have fine motor deficits, so they may have poor handwriting or difficulty with other fine motor tasks, such as cutting with scissors.”

However, offsetting these deficits are several common strengths.  Those with NVLD usually begin to speak early and develop excellent vocabularies and verbal expressions.  They are always of at least average intelligence, and quite often above average.  Good listening traits, remarkable memory skills and focus on detail are invaluable to them in educational settings.

Unfortunately, many children who exhibit a number of these strengths and weaknesses are never diagnosed or diagnosed incorrectly.  Afflicted children in the early years of their elementary education may be able to perform at the level of their classmates, able to “mask” deficits with strengths, such as memorization and glib verbalization.  Once students who struggle with NVLD advance to the upper elementary grades or junior high school, educational concepts become more difficult and are studied in-depth, making it harder to keep up.  Many students with NVLD, like Neil, struggle with assignments, never to complete them.  Conversely, they may complete the homework but never turn it in.  Admitting difficulty and asking for help becomes nearly impossible, given that they don’t understand why they can’t learn like everyone else and may wish to avoid being singled out or embarrassed.  This, in turn, often leads to low self-esteem and very possibly anxiety or depression.

As with other learning disabilities, those with NVLD require accommodations from their school’s resource department in order to become successful learners in the classroom.  A proactive plan to obtain special education services begins with accumulating evidence to provide school officials with the information necessary to document a learning deficit.  An official diagnosis can be obtained from a medical health professional, such as a psychiatrist. 

Further documentation might come from teachers with particular insight to the problem or could be supplied by parents with journal entries showing assignments with corresponding grades and dates of completion.  Emotional difficulties and events that precede them should also be included.  Tracking discipline issues, the proposed resolution by school staff and residual outcome may also prove beneficial in building an argument for resource services.

Evidence has shown that individuals with NVLD can be taught almost anything with patience and direct, simple instruction; however, the sooner deficits are recognized and can be addressed, the more successful the outcome.  Dr. Briseno agrees with Dr. Morton’s belief that, “Although NVLD cannot be cured, these individuals can learn strategies to address some of their difficulties and they can benefit from extra assistance in some areas, most importantly at school.”  Acceptance, love and support from influential people in their lives also go a long way toward building confidence and a positive self-image.