Nonverbal Learning Disorder (NLD)
Most adults are familiar with learning disorders in the areas of reading, writing, and mathematics. These learning disorders consist of assets and limitations in how the brain handles information.
A fourth learning disorder, Nonverbal Learning Disorder (NLD or NVLD), also has a specific profile of strengths and limitations.
Strengths associated with Nonverbal Learning Disorder:
- Concentration: excellent concentration and focus of attention during most non-emotional tasks
- Attention: good focus on details, notice with precision
- Language: early and excellent speech and language development
- Memory: outstanding auditory memory and memorization of verbal material
- Reading: early development and mastery of reading
- Writing: excellent spelling skills and, usually, excellent writing skills
- Speech: advanced vocabulary and ease of verbal expressiveness
Limitations associated with Nonverbal Learning Disorder:
- Fine and gross motor skills: sloppy handwriting; poor overall physical coordination; athletic limitations; and for some people, being accident-prone
- Visual-spatial skills: difficulty remembering visual details; poor understanding of visually presented material; difficulty being oriented physically in space; easily lost when following maps or directions to locations; and often, difficulty mastering areas of math that rely on visual-spatial understandings (such as geometry)
- Transitions: anxiety and/or negative reactivity when adjusting to and to unexpected events, people, or situations; a preference for predictable routines
- Nonverbal communication: over-reliance on verbal communication; a tendency to interpret comments literally; ignoring subtle nonverbal cues; missing aspects of communicative intent; challenges in understanding humor
- Social skills: “out-of-sync” in unstructured social contacts; easily overwhelmed in social situations that are ambiguous, complex, or changing; most comfortable in social situations that are structured and have clearly-defined expectations; poor self-marketing; inconsistent challenges with accurate social judgments
- Sensory awareness: tolerance for high stimulation, typically in one primary modality (vision, hearing, touch, taste, or smell); not generally adventurous but may have an adventurous hobby
- Executive functioning: vacillation and indecision; challenges with planning, initiative, and setting priorities; poor impulse control and inhibition; difficulty with establishing goals, monitoring outcomes from behavior, and self-correcting.
All of these strengths and limitations appear to be based in brain functioning. Parts of the brain that are involved in verbal understanding and expression are highly developed. Parts of the brain related to visual-spatial understanding and to some aspects of executive functioning are poorly developed. For those with Nonverbal Learning Disorder (NLD), the brain misreads incoming visual information and sometimes information from the other senses. Next, the brain only inefficiently – and sometimes inaccurately – processes the information it receives. And finally, reactions and responses can be inappropriate or out-of-sync with others.
Individuals with NLD, as well as their friends and family, are often confused by these mixed strengths and limitations. Excellent language skills and logical thinking may bring early academic success, but limited social skills often keep these individuals from realizing their full potential. They may focus on intellectual problem-solving when social intuition is needed. They may become uncomfortable in busy settings that leave them on sensory overload, making it difficult to operate effectively. They may have difficulty completing tasks due to challenges with goal-setting, indecision, and over-focused attention. Anxiety and depression are relatively common, given this unexplained pattern of challenges and failures. Some individuals are more challenged by NLD than others. Like all adults with skill deficits, though, people with NLD can learn to draw upon their strengths and cope with their limitations through skill development, the use of compensatory strategies, and other life management skills. An individualized profile for NLD can provide direction on how to negotiate work and relationships with improved success.