By: Angela Currie, Ph.D.
Pediatric Neuropsychologist, NESCA
Director of Training and New Hampshire Operations
There is often lack of awareness or confusion about what a Nonverbal Learning Disability (NLD or NVLD) is. While NLD has been long-discussed in the neuropsychological and educational world, it has not been formally recognized by the medical field due to variability within individual profiles and lack of clarity on its causal factors. While this is so, there is a very clear pattern that is noted through the neuropsychological evaluation process. And most importantly, there is a breadth of interventions and supports to address NLD-related challenges, highlighting the importance of identifying and understanding this profile in children.
By definition, NLD is a relative strength in left-brain skills, which are largely verbal, and weakness in right-brain nonverbal skills. As such, to understand NLD, it is important to understand the right hemisphere of the brain.
The right side of the brain is responsible for the collection and integration of multiple sources of information, particularly sensory information, lending to an organized “big picture” understanding of events or information. The right brain is thus not only important for basic visual processing and reasoning, but it is also responsible for the organization and coordination of information and skills across a wide range of domains, including learning, motor coordination, self-regulation (e.g. sensory regulation and attention), social thinking, and task management. As such, the word learning within the “Nonverbal Learning Disability” title is somewhat of a misnomer, as NLD can impact functioning across most any domain.
It is important to understand that NLD is a relative deficit, meaning that it is a personal weakness. Some individuals with NLD may have nonverbal skills that are all technically “average or better,” but they are still discrepant from that person’s strong verbal skills, causing variability within the profile.
Because many students with NLD have strong verbal reasoning, processing, and memory skills, they are often able to compensate and fly under the radar for some time. However, their over-reliance on verbal skills and rote learning tend to become less effective once they are tasked with the abstract demands of middle and high school. As such, while some individuals with NLD may be identified at a young age, others may not be flagged until much later.
As already stated, although NLD profiles can vary significantly, there are fairly predictable patterns that allow for its accurate identification, namely within the following areas:
Visual Reasoning. On structured intellectual assessment, individuals with NLD demonstrate a significant difference between their verbal and visually-based reasoning, with verbal being better. The Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children, which is currently in its fifth edition and is the most commonly used intellectual test for children, contains two domains of visually-based reasoning. One is the Visual Spatial index, which contains more concrete puzzle-like tasks, and the Fluid Reasoning index, which assesses abstract pattern recognition. At times individuals with NLD struggle with both domains, while other times they may only demonstrate impairment within one. Because there are many factors that can contribute to challenges within either one of these visual domains, a proper NLD diagnosis can only be made through collection of a thorough history, direction observation, and the assessment of other associated challenges, detailed below.
Visual Processing and Perception. In spite of having perfectly fine vision, individuals with NLD have difficulty managing visual input. This may include problems with tracking lines while reading, difficulty discerning visual details (e.g. differentiating math or letter symbols, recognizing errors when editing their writing, misreading graphs and charts, etc.), or difficulty creating mental imagery (i.e. “seeing” and holding information in one’s head).
Motor Integration. Individuals with NLD demonstrate some level of motor integration or coordination difficulties. This may involve fine motor skills (e.g. poor handwriting and spacing on the page, difficulty tying shoes and using utensils, etc.), gross motor skills (e.g. clumsiness, awkwardness when running, poor hand-eye coordination, etc.), or both. Most often, individuals with NLD have appropriate motor strength, but they struggle to appropriately integrate and manage their movements within space and present demands. This may also correspond to difficulties with directionality and finding their way around, causing them to get lost easily.
Social Skills. Individuals with NLD most often meet early social milestones without any concern. In fact, some individuals with NLD may demonstrate early verbal precociousness that gives the appearance of advanced social engagement, which is aided by the fact that individuals with NLD generally possess appropriate foundational pragmatic skills, particularly when one-on-one or with adults. However, as these children grow older, they continue to over-rely on verbal language and miss out on nonverbal language (e.g. body signals) and context clues. As such, children with NLD may misperceive or misinterpret situations or interactions, or they may become overwhelmed by the complexity of typical peer interactions, causing them to withdraw. Often times, individuals with NLD know what they “should do” socially, but they struggle to actually generalize those skills to interactions.
Executive Functioning. Executive functioning refers to a complex set of skills that are responsible for an individual’s ability to engage in goal-directed behavior. This includes skills necessary for self-regulation, such as impulse control, attentional management, and emotional control, as well as skills for task management and cognitive regulation, such as organizing materials, creating a plan, starting a task and sustaining effort, prioritizing and organizing ideas, holding information in memory, etc. Individuals with NLD likely have some executive function strengths, particularly when they can rely on their verbal strengths; however, they are likely to demonstrate significant challenges with the executive function skills that rely on “big picture awareness,” such as organization, integration, planning, prioritizing, time management, and self-monitoring. Individuals with NLD are detail-focused – they often miss the forest for the trees. For some, they compensate by redoing work and over-exerting their efforts, eventually achieving a semblance of desired outcomes at the cost of time and energy; others may produce work that misses the main point of the task or demonstrates a lack of understanding; and others may just become overwhelmed and give up, appearing to lack “motivation.”
Learning. With the above profile, individuals with NLD tend to rely on rote learning, as they do well with concrete repetition of verbal information. However, they may have difficulty flexibly applying this knowledge, and they are likely to struggle with tasks that require more abstract, “big picture” thinking. Parents and teachers of individuals with NLD often report frustration because problems with information retrieval, pattern recognition, and generalization of skills can result in these individuals making the same mistakes over and over again, not seeming to learn from their errors.
Due to the above learning challenges, children with NLD often struggle with math reasoning, doing best with rote calculations than application of knowledge. Challenges with reading comprehension and written expression are also common, as they not only struggle to see the main idea and integrate information, but they also struggle to “see” the images or story in their head. For younger children with NLD, problems with mental imagery may be mistaken for a reading disability, such as dyslexia, due to difficulties holding, appreciating, and learning letters, numbers, and sight words.
Other Associated Challenges. Because the right hemisphere of the brain coordinates and manages sensory input and complexity, individuals with NLD are at higher risk for challenges with self-regulation. This may include sensory sensitivities, variable attention, or difficulties with emotion regulation. As such, those with NLD may demonstrate heightened anxiety or emotional reactivity that is only further-challenged by the complexity of their learning profile. Because of this, individuals with NLD often rely on a rigid, predictable routine. There is a high rate of comorbid, or co-occurring, diagnoses in individuals with NLD, including things such as ADHD, anxiety disorders, specific learning disabilities, and potentially autism spectrum disorder. Because of this, it is important to have a comprehensive understanding of each individual’s profile before devising their intervention plan.
What do we do to support individuals with NLD? The supports set into place can be widely variable depending on the individual child’s profile. Some of the most common recommendations include social skills interventions that target “higher level” skills, such as social perspective taking and problem solving; executive function instruction that aims to teach task management skills, develop “big picture” thinking, and generalize skills across tasks and settings; academic remediation for any specific domain of impairment, potentially including math reasoning, reading comprehension, or written expression; and occupational therapy services to develop skills, such as handwriting and/or keyboarding, visual processing, and motor coordination.
It is important to understand that individuals with NLD struggle with abstraction, so concrete, explicit instruction, with frequent repetition, is often key. This not only applies to academic instruction, but also therapy or instruction in daily living skills at home. Things need to be rehearsed “in real time,” as there needs to be a plan for how to ensure skills translate to life.
Self-advocacy most often needs to be directly taught by first increasing self-awareness, as it may be difficult for individuals with NLD to recognize the patterns within their challenges or self-monitor when support may be needed.
There are many useful resources for further understanding ways to support individuals with NLD. Some available options include Pamela Tanguay’s Nonverbal Learning Disabilities at Home: A Parent’s Guide and Nonverbal Learning Disabilities at School: Educating Students with NLD, Asperger Syndrome and Related Conditions, and Kathryn Stewart’s Helping a Child with Nonverbal Learning Disorder or Asperger’s Disorder: A Parent’s Guide.
Because NLD profiles can be variable, complex, and clouded by co-occurring challenges, a thorough neuropsychological evaluation can be a critical step toward fully understanding an individual child’s needs and thinking about how they will be best supported not just in school, but also in their day to day life. Should you require support in navigating such needs for a child, teen, or young adult in your life, more information about NESCA’s neuropsychological evaluations and team of evaluators is available at www.nesca-newton.com.
About the Author:
Dr. Angela Currie is a pediatric neuropsychologist at NESCA. She conducts neuropsychological and psychological evaluations out of our Londonderry, NH office. She specializes in the evaluation of anxious children and teens, working to tease apart the various factors lending to their stress, such as underlying learning, attentional, or emotional challenges. She particularly enjoys working with the seemingly “unmotivated” child, as well as children who have “flown under the radar” for years due to their desire to succeed.
To book an evaluation with Dr. Currie or one of our many other expert neuropsychologists, complete NESCA’s online intake form. Indicate whether you are seeking an “evaluation” or “consultation” and your preferred clinician in the referral line.
Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Londonderry, NH, Plainville, MA, and Newton, MA serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (603) 818-8526.