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The Child Who is Different – A Description of Nonverbal Learning Disorder
NLD: Non-verbal learning disability
You know him. He’s the one who sits at his desk and reads during recess instead of going outside to play ball with his classmates.
She is the one who makes silly remarks when she is with her friends. She will say something that is exaggerated or off topic.
He is clumsy, always bumping into things.
Her handwriting is illegible and she is bad at math.
These are children who suffer in and out of school. They are labeled as “nerds” or described as “weird”. They try to fit in but fail; worse, the more they try, the more they fail. Their self-esteem drops, they feel rejected and alone, and they are at risk of emotional problems.
The cause of their problems is a little-known learning disability called NLD, or non-verbal learning disability. This disability is often unrecognized because those who have it are usually verbally precocious and are considered equally capable in all areas. On the other hand, parents and educators (unfamiliar with NLD) do not understand the reason for the child’s clumsiness or poor performance. They assume the reason is “laziness” or boredom. Consequently, it can take years for these children to receive an accurate diagnosis, if at all.
Cerebral hemispheric specialization explains the origins of nonverbal learning disabilities. The left hemisphere of the brain is where verbal information is processed. In contrast, the right hemisphere is specialized for processing visuospatial as well as emotional information. The functions of the right hemisphere are interconnected. According to Dr. Wendy Heller of the University of Illinois: “Deciphering the meaning of a facial expression or understanding a complex series of gestures requires sophisticated visuospatial processing.”
Assessment of individuals with NLD indicates neurological dysfunction affecting systems in the right cerebral hemisphere. The result is an observed mismatch between their verbal and visuospatial/social skills.
Children with NLD have learning profiles characterized by strength in the verbal domain and marked weakness in non-verbal functioning. The discrepancy between these abilities causes significant impairment in their social and academic performance.
The lack of visual-spatial organization is noteworthy. Children with this learning disability often show relatively poor achievement in certain academic areas, such as math, science, or reading comprehension. In the early grades, they may have difficulty with handwriting and cutting due to poor fine motor skills.
One of the most striking consequences of NLD is the deterioration of social functioning. Few of us realize how much of our social interactions are based on our understanding of non-verbal communication cues. Eye contact, hand gestures, tone of voice, body language, and posture are some of the many signals we pick up when talking to someone else.
Children who lack nonverbal communication cues2 often feel uncomfortable with their peers and may gravitate toward adults who admire their extensive knowledge or younger children who are happy to take directions from them.
Finally, children with NLD may have attention problems such as distractibility and difficulty concentrating. Accordingly, they may be diagnosed with attention deficit disorder. Although AD/HD can co-occur with NLD, they are not synonymous. Therefore, it is important to make an accurate diagnosis.
Children with NLD can benefit from the following options:
1. Occupational therapy to develop their fine motor skills and visual-motor integration skills.
2. Social skills training—whether at school, at home, or in a therapeutic setting—as a means of learning effective communication and interpersonal skills.
3. Academic support in their weak areas.
4. Cognitive behavioral therapy or coaching techniques to help them deal with everyday challenges.
It is important that all interventions take place in the overall context of building the child’s self-esteem. Children with NLD have often experienced a lot of negative feedback in a variety of situations. Helping them recognize their strengths and take pride in learning new skills is an important part of therapeutic treatment.
Not a childhood disease
Like all learning disabilities, NLD does not go away with age. Children with NLD become teenagers and adults with NLD. Thus, their neurological weakness can affect their personal and professional lives. Even adults with NLD can benefit from training that teaches them to compensate for their weaknesses and use their strengths.
People with NLD are intelligent, reliable and often highly motivated to succeed. They just need to gain support, understanding and learn the unlearned skills to do so.
dr. Steven Nowitzki and Marshall Duke have written two excellent books about children with NLD:
Helping the child who doesn’t fit in (Peachtree Publishers, 1992).
Teach your child the language of social success (With Elisabeth Martin. Peachtree Publishers, 1996).
For adults with NLD:
What does everyone else know that I don’t? Michel Novotni (Special Press. 1999)
1 “Understanding Nonverbal Learning Disabilities,” by Wendy Heller, Ph.D.
2 According to Dr. Steven Nowicki, “one in 10 children have serious problems with nonverbal communication” (Monitor on psychologySeptember 2006, p. 37).
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