Non-Verbal Learning Disability

The definition of Nonverbal Learning Disability is almost the opposite of what it seems to mean. People with this disability are actually highly verbal but are challenged when it comes to processing non-verbal information.

The leading scientist in the field, Dr. Byron P. Rourke, was the first to identify it as a separate and distinct learning disability around 1985. He wrote in 1995 that “Nonverbal learning disability is defined as a dysfunction of the brain’s right hemisphere – that part of the brain which processes nonverbal, performance-based information, including visual – spatial, intuitive, organizational and evaluative processing functions.

It is believed that the signals between the left- and right-hemispheres of the brain do not function properly, most likely because of damage to the myelination, or “white matter” in the brain’s neural system. Myelination is a coating on the neural pathways that allow information to be relayed throughout the brain. No one is sure what causes this damage. There may be a genetic component, but that has yet to be determined either.

This learning disability affects both males and females at about the same rate and Dr. Rourke believes that about 10 percent of children who have been identified with learning disabilities have nonverbal learning disabilities. This means that nearly 1 percent of the U.S. population, nearly 2.7 million people, have NVLD.

NVLD can be seen in three areas of child development: motor, social and visual-spatial. Some children will exhibit problems in all three areas while some may only have problems with one or two of these areas.

Motor Skills
- Children with NVLD often have weaker-than-normal motor skills, both gross-motor and fine-motor. Riding a bike or playing soccer can be terribly difficult, as can using scissors or even holding a pencil or fork.

Social- Children with NVLD are unable to process visual “cues.” Scientists tell us that nearly 65 percent of a regular face-to-face conversation is communicated non-verbally, that is to say with facial and hand gestures and with changes in tone or pitch. So while most people would interpret their conversational partner’s yawn as a cue to speed things up or move along, children with NVLD do not. They simply don’t understand this nonverbal cue and will continue one with their side of the conversation unabated.

Forget subtleties such as sarcasm or innuendo. One parent tells the story of her NVLD child who was told to, “keep an eye on your sister.” After registering the look of horror on her son’s face, she realized that he took that completely literally and believed he was being asked to take his eyeball out of his head and put it on his sister. After changing the wording of the instruction to something more literal, “Please look after your sister and make sure she doesn’t get hurt,” the horror dissipated and the child was fine.

People with NVLD also do not understand the concept of personal space and often make others uncomfortable by crowding in.

Visual- Spatial Skills
Group activities, such as being in a classroom, may well be where NVLD is most identifiable. Because they are missing all of the non-verbal interactions going on around them, they do not understand what is going on. They may refuse to stay seated or may hum or distract themselves in other ways that are disruptive to the group without understanding that they are acting inappropriately.

Children with NVLD can also have problems handling a series of tasks. Being told to do a series of things usually results in either a blank stare or other behavior that seems to be defiant.

Nonverbal learning disorders are often misdiagnosed. Often a child with NLD may initially be considered to have ADD/ADHD, to be autistic or suffer from Asperger’s Syndrome. It is important whenever a diagnosis or any type of learning disability is made to be sure that have multiple evaluations. This will ensure that the proper diagnosis is made so that the most appropriate treatment can be made.

Girls and Non-Verbal Learning Disabilities

Those girls with Nonverbal Learning Disorder Syndrome (NVLD) suffer a variety of learning, academic, social and emotional issues. What is NVLD? While not a widely recognized or understood diagnosis, experts believe that it stems from problems in functioning of the right hemisphere of the brain, often through trauma, such as birth trauma, tumors, or seizures. Sometimes there is no identified reason for right brain damage.

One of the most important functions of the right brain is to process emotional information. The right brain is also involved is visuo-spatial relations, that is, the ability to build an internal picture of an object or scene based upon visual and spatial cues. It helps someone to understand how things fit together, interact or intersect.

A child with NVLD has trouble building a foundation for social learning. She may want to play with other children but has trouble processing nonverbal cues that are important for social functioning. It is hard to know when to take turns in conversation, for example, if she has trouble reading facial expressions and voice intonation cues that signal her that it is her turn to speak. She may have a poor sense of territoriality and violate another’s personal space by excessive touching or standing too close during conversation. She may laugh inappropriately and have trouble understanding other people’s feelings.

Visuo-spatial difficulties often make it difficult for a child to decipher the meaning of a story (although she is likely to be able to read the words), to do arithmetic problems, to sort out the essential from non-essential details, and identify priorities, among other things. This can slow academic progress.

Unfortunately, girls with NVLD are not as quickly referred for diagnosis and treatment because unlike boys, who act out when frustrated, causing sufficient disturbance to be referred, they tend to become depressed and/or isolate themselves, behaviors that aren’t as easily perceived as problematic.

Once diagnosed, though, girls with NVLD benefit from specific strategies that can help them to compensate for problems with right brain functioning.