The term nonverbal learning disability can be easily confused by parents.

Sometimes, they mistakenly interpret it as a student who doesn’t talk which in many ways is often the opposite of what is happening. Generally, students with a nonverbal learning disability have particular difficulty in neuropsychological processing in the right hemisphere of the brain.

Individuals with this disability have difficulties organizing the visual-spatial field, adapting to new or novel situations, and/or accurately reading nonverbal signals and cues.  Although academic progress is made, such students have difficulty “producing” in situations where speed and adaptability are required.

Three categories of dysfunction are generally associated with this disability: (1) motoric (lack of coordination, balance problems and/or difficulties with fine graphomotor skills, (2) visual-spatial-organizational (lack of image, poor visual recall, faulty spatial perceptions, and or difficulties with spatial relations), and (3) social (lack of ability to comprehend nonverbal communication, difficulty adjusting to transitions and novel situation, and/or significant deficits in social judgment and social interaction.

The student with a non-verbal learning disability commonly appears awkward and is, in fact, inadequately coordinated in both fine and gross motor skills.  He or she may have extreme difficulty learning to ride a bike, cut with scissors or tie shoelaces and may spatially confuse directions such as left and right.  Typically, these students rely on their stronger verbal abilities to “talk themselves through” such motoric tasks.  Very often such students do not perceive subtle cues in their environment such as: when something has gone far enough; the idea of personal “space”; the facial expressions of others; or when another person is registering pleasure (or displeasure).  Such a student will cope by relying on language as a principal means of social relating, information gathering and relief from anxiety.  Because NLD students are often verbally strong, unrealistic expectations may be made for them and can lead to ongoing emotional problems.  The student with a non-verbal learning disability is particularly inclined toward internalizing disorders such as depression, withdrawal and anxiety.  Students with this learning difference will attempt to avoid novel situations and prefer predictable, regular routines.  Often such students are noted to “speak like an adult” from a very early age, will develop early reading skills, and quickly memorize rote material.

Students with this disability have difficulty when their coping strategies are not effective in new or novel situations.  As situations become more complex, coping strategies are disrupted and increased anxiety can be generated.  Deficits in social awareness and social judgment, though the student is struggling to fit in and his actions are not deliberate, will often be misinterpreted as “annoying” or “attention getting” behavior by adults and peers alike.

The effects of a non-verbal learning disability become especially problematic as a student advances in school and can be quite debilitating without specific accommodations, compensations, modifications and strategies.  Even in a student with strong verbal intellectual abilities, the increasing demands to interpret and evaluate information in complex situations will strain her coping strategies.

Effective remediation methods include direct verbal training in planning, organizing, studying, written expression, social cognition, and interpersonal communication.

Typical Weaknesses in NLD Students

  • Attention control and working memory
  • Cognitive shifting
  • Visuospatial working memory
  • Visual imagery
  • Misread novel situations
  • Trouble sorting, prioritizing, sequencing and organizing information efficiently
  • Interpret language in a literal and inflexible manner: can misunderstand verbal instructions or written assignments
  • Planning
  • Disinhibition (especially with verbal and behavioral responses)
  • Self-monitoring
  • Social perception
  • Academic problems: writing, reading comprehension, math problem solving and science
  • Will respond very differently depending on the structure of tasks presented to them: