Non-Verbal Learning Disorder

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Children with non-verbal learning disorder (NLD) have a combination of social, emotional, and learning deficits. Unlike other learning disorders, NLD does not impact the ability to process language; instead, it affects social interactions, executive function, organization, and problem-solving.

According to the Child Mind Institute, five major areas are impacted by NLD. Firstly, visual and spatial awareness is an area of weakness for those with NLD. Oftentimes, this leads to children with NLD being physically awkward and unable to perceive shape and position.

Another aspect of NLD is higher-order comprehension, which is the ability to relate the big picture of something and to smaller details. This weakness makes it difficult for children with NLD to take notes in school because they tend to write everything being said, rather than identifying important information.

Additionally, students with NLD struggle with math that goes beyond the data memorization. The importance of recognizing concepts and patterns in math makes such a topic difficult for those with NLD.

In everyday life, social communication deficits greatly impact children with NLD. Children with non-verbal learning disorders find it challenging to interpret body language, facial expressions, and tones. As a result, it’s difficult for children with NLD to build friendships as they do not read social cues appropriately. Additionally, in social situations, it is common for children with NLD to share socially inappropriate information, be unaware of people’s reactions, and change subjects abruptly.

A crucial area in which children with NLD struggle is in executive function skills, which are skills we use to think, organize, plan, problem-solve, and execute actions. This applies to everyday life, such as completing homework: students struggle with organizing their assignments, planning how they will complete them, and then actually going through and doing their work.

Oftentimes children with NLD are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder or ADHD due to the similarity of symptoms. However, NLD testing is more specific to higher-order comprehension and visual and spatial relations.

While there is no single test for NLD, there are multiple steps parents can take to get a diagnosis. Firstly, parents can get a medical exam with their child’s primary doctor and a referral to a mental health professional. Mental health professionals will then use various tests, studying language skills, gross and fine motor skills, and visual-spatial organization.

With these tests, the specialist will observe the child’s strengths and weaknesses common to NLD: some strengths include high verbal scores, and average to above-average intelligence, while some weaknesses include social skills, visualizing information, and coordination.

Many other conditions are often diagnosed alongside NLD, but as a separate disorder. This includes language disorders (ex: expressive language disorder and receptive language disorder) and Asperger’s syndrome. Commonly children with NLD are misdiagnosed with ADHD as many of the symptoms are similar, but ADHD is rooted more in lack of concentration and impulse control.

Some therapies that are effective for children with NLD symptoms are social skill groups that aid communication, occupational therapy, which improves motor skills and coordination, and cognitive therapy, to cope with associated mental health issues, like anxiety.

An important aspect of life for children with NLD is their education and how their learning disabilities are accommodated in the classroom. Although NLD is not a disability recognized in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), if parents and the school believes that a child needs special education services, they can be evaluated to get an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or a 504 plan. With these programs, schools will provide children with accommodations and modifications in the child’s education plan. In doing so, children’s teachers will better understand their strengths and weaknesses, and increase their students’ ability to succeed in the classroom.

In all, non-verbal learning disorders can affect many areas of life among the children who have their symptoms. With more research and a better understanding of the disorder, we can improve education plans for these children and provide better environments for social and learning development.


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