Nonverbal Learning Disability

Rabbi Azriel Hauptman

Nonverbal Learning Disability (NVLD) refers to an individual who suffers from learning disabilities due to their difficulties in interpreting nonverbal information. The term “nonverbal” is therefore misleading, as it can be interpreted as meaning that one is lacking in verbal abilities. NLVD is, in fact, just the opposite, as we shall explain.

Communication between people is a mixture of verbal and nonverbal information. Some studies have shown that as much as 93% of communication is nonverbal. Individuals with NLVD have difficulties in comprehending nonverbal forms of communication. This can lead to many areas of difficulty, even though that their ability to understand verbal communication is completely intact. This might not be readily apparent in little children, but as children emerge into adolescence and adulthood, so much of our expression become nonverbal.

This is a typical presentation of a child with NLVD: His or her vocabulary is very well developed at a relatively young age, and they become so adept at verbal expression that they seem to be talking almost like an adult. Their extra focus on verbal learning and expression allows then to hone their skills of memorization of verbal information and will therefore perform very well academically for those subjects that require retaining a lot of pieces of raw information.

However, subjects that require abstract reasoning can be very difficult. This includes math, especially math word problems. Additionally, even with reading, their comprehension tends to focus on the basic information and not on the overall meaning. For example, if they would read a book about the American Civil War, they would be able to recall an impressive amount of detailed information about all of the different battles, but not the overall background of what they were really fighting for. In a sense, when it comes to reading, they often miss the forest for the trees. 

In their interactions with other people, they tend to focus on the literal verbal communication, and miss the true meaning of the communication. They also miss out on the body language, tone of voice, and facial expressions. If a classmate says in a teasing voice, “This teacher is soooo exciting,” they might think that their friend actually believes that the teacher is stimulating and engaging. Additionally, since the only mode of communication that they connect with is verbal, they tend to talk a lot since they have no other way to easily communicate. 

They also have difficulty processing visual-spatial information and they suffer from motor deficiencies. This can lead to handwriting problems, physical awkwardness, and difficulties with tasks that require motor coordination, such as tying shoes.

Due to the difficulties they have in processing nonverbal information, adjusting to changes can be extremely difficult and they often will try to avoid new situations. Individuals with NLVD have a healthy sense of empathy and they crave friendships just like everybody else. Unfortunately, they may have fewer friends due to their difficulties in nonverbal communication. They are therefore at a heightened risk of anxiety and depression.

Children will NLVD are often overlooked. Their verbal abilities are well developed, and they try very hard to hide their difficulties. They can get through the lower grades of school without attracting much attention. They will receive excellent grades in some subjects and below-average grades in others, and deficiencies in social competence are not as noticeable at that age. As they progress closer to adolescence, all of this starts to change. The learning in school starts to require nonverbal comprehension, and social interactions become extremely important. 

The challenge that these children face is that most other learning disabilities, such as dyslexia or ADHD, will manifest themselves as early as preschool. However, with NLVD, they seem like little professors in first grade, which makes it very difficult for the adults to switch gears and realize that in fact this child has a learning disability that requires intervention just as much as any other learning disability. Additionally, not only is their academic life impacted, but their social life is also at risk. 

We are blessed to live in a time when effective interventions exist that can help children with all types of learning disabilities, including NLVD. The biggest obstacle to intervention is a misdiagnosis. There is overlap with ADHD and autism spectrum disorder, and treatment for a disorder that the child does not have is not helpful. Someone who is well trained and experienced in psychological testing can help identify the exact learning disability and then establish an appropriate roadmap for future intervention. As with everything else, the best intervention is early detection.

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