Nonverbal Learning Disabilities from 9 to 5
(c) 1997-98 by Kelli Bond
In the workplace, employees whose primary learning disabilities are in the nonverbal area (NLD) can be spotted by a number of distinctive characteristics. Many, but certainly not all, show up in the same individual.
These teens and adults have consistent trouble with visualization, with seeing the big picture, with "thinking on their feet," with information presented in graph/chart/table form, with directionality (left/right, up/down, over/under), with adaptation to change, with reading nonverbal signals and cues, and with practical math. Multitasking is troublesome. They tend to "talk their way" through problem-solving. They deluge supervisors and co-workers with questions in an attempt to have everything spelled out in black and white. The response, "You gotta be there to fully appreciate...," is lost on those with NLD. They often engender the feelings, "If you'd just shut up and watch for a change...," "You talk too much," or "For once in your life, will you just read between the lines!"
When training workers with NLD, instructors may note the person with NLD's tendency to treat everything as an isolated event. What is so well-memorized and regurgitated for the classroom or the one-on-one session stays there. On-the-job application ("generalization" in the psychological world and "transfer of learning/training" in the education and business worlds) is often excruciating.
Supervisors and co-workers all too often complain that this individual provides either too little or too much information. The latter is most frequently exhibited as a tendency to monologue. Trouble gauging "how much" can be traced to the person with NLD's lifelong struggles in attending to another person's communication needs. (When everyone has marveled for years over the person with NLD's large vocabulary and vast storehouse of rotely-learned information, the person with NLD--whose orientation is toward words and the sound aspects of them rather than on facial expressions, tone of voice, eye movements, gesture, and other nonverbals that make up two-thirds of a message--naturally assumes that he or she is communicating!)
Divulging confidential information to the wrong individuals, asking questions or making comments perceived as intrusive by most standards, uttering remarks that can be received as discriminatory, and treating virtual strangers as long-lost friends are among the other on-the-job social blunders committed by individuals with NLD. These are related to problems perceiving and understanding that most people flex relationship styles among different individuals, have multiple complex definitions for the word "friend," and have no need to verbalize their every move and thought.
All of the aforementioned difficulties, along with literal interpretations of messages and the resulting black-and-white outlook in dealing with interpersonal conflict, often earns the employee with NLD consistent "needs to improvement" ratings on the communication and teamwork sections of performance appraisals. (An example of conflict resolution: If an individual with even a moderate case of NLD is working for a government agency or another unionized environment where written grievances are suggested for problems that can't be solved informally, the person with NLD may bypass the informal process and regularly "write up" co-workers and even supervisors for even minor infractions. The missives take the tone of, "Here's the rule, you broke it, and you're a horrible person for having done so.")
Business writing in the person with NLD engenders complaints similar to those received from school teachers and college professors: nonsequitirs (two or more unrelated pieces of information minus the connection to a common idea or unifying theme), numerous digressions/tangents, excessive detail, and overall inability to grasp a topic.
Another job-related problem with face-to-face and written communication that an individual with NLD may inadvertently find himself or herself is in the middle of a discrimination or harassment allegation.
One such scenario may involve epithets, passing remarks, and actions based on an individual's gender, race, religion, and other characteristics (including sexual orientation) protected by law. The person with NLD may have grown up in an environment where such comments were and still are acceptable, and may have missed out on direct feedback to refrain or--in the face of such correction--failed to reflect on the magnitude of his continued faux pas. (Such an employee may, for instance, be able to recite almanac or encyclopedia entries on various riots over the last half of the 20th century, but completely overlook the fact that his own words or deeds can lead to similar levels of violence in the workplace.)
Another situation: A co-worker may show a great deal of unconditional positive regard toward the employee with NLD, who often receives more criticisms than compliments. If the employee with NLD is lonely or has other unresolved psychological issues, she'll find the attention more than irresistible. She'll most likely repay it with an avalanche of phone calls, letters, cards, gifts, and invitations to various social events--all out of proportion to what, if anything else, the co-worker may have offered. The ensuing requests to stop can go unheeded until an immediate supervisor or other member of management intervenes.
When confronted with the "news" of a misstep (which happens often), employees with NLD frequently respond, "I didn't know--no one told me that!" They're correct: no one ever said anything directly, in words. Such a response often floors the listener, who assumes that most adults should be able to quietly size up situations and act fast on that information.
Many of these problems are seen in cases of ADD/ADHD as well. However, the primary difference between most cases of NLD and most cases of ADD/ADHD involves the relationship to change. Most people with NLD resist novelty and change, whereas most with ADD/ADHD live for such elements! Also, when asked to evaluate a product, service, or situation, those with NLD--accustomed to laying out every fact they know about the matter at hand--will most often continue in that mode without offering the asked-for opinion. Those with ADD/ADHD will most often spout ideas and omit the evidence.
The impact of NLD on an organization can be tremendous. Increases in customer, client, or citizen complaints--along with lost business--are the most obvious. Other effects include the costs of (1) using outside consultants brought in to boost a work group's sagging morale resulting from long-running issues between the group and a manager/supervisor or key associate who has NLD; (2) litigating a harassment or discrimination claim brought against an organization when the behavior of an employee with NLD is interpreted by the suing co-worker as obsessive or bigoted; and (3) replacing an employee with NLD, who all too often is fired instead of helped.
Here are some things employers can do for a teen or an adult with NLD.
* Be prepared to work with parents, caseworkers, and/or other people who may be helping her transition into gainful employment.
* Refrain from homilies: "look at the bright side," "all you gotta do is set some goals," and other mantras of the positive-thinking movement. Besides drawing a blank expression because the statements are replete with figurative/abstract language, he will conclude that whoever is mouthing these shibboleths is simply "unable to listen."
* Present job skills, concepts, and applicable procedures orally using a specific-to-general pattern so they can be learned rotely. Check often for understanding and allow ample time for questioning; the latter is her primary information-gathering mode. Leaving her with an instruction manual with diagrams and numerous examples doesn't work, as it demands too much silent "figuring out."
* Prepare him in advance for any figurative speech, idioms, slang, and professional jargon used in a staff meeting or classroom situation. Use direct, concrete language with him.
* Arrange for a knowledgeable coworker to be available for questions when putting her through computer-based training. Place her where disruptions (from the inevitable talking aloud to herself just to get through the task) are minimized.
* Coach him, one-on-one, toward greater social awareness. As with anything else involving training for the employee with NLD, each communication skill must be broken down and presented orally so each step can be committed to memory. Use videos of interpersonal encounters, stopping them every 2-3 minutes to review with the employee what went on. (This strengthens his simultaneous processing of visual and auditory information.) And use this employee's personal experiences-about which he can talk nonstop-to build bridges to the bigger picture.
* Spell out the differences in how she perceives a given situation versus how others perceive it. Exercise knowledge of personality types/differences (through instruments such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and the Performax Personal Profile System) to devise specific strategies for handling various troublesome situations with people whom he or she has frequent contact.
* Talk through a job procedure in front of this employee to let him hear what goes into one's internal problem-solving methods. Lay out actual steps (not just a process) for self-monitoring and self-questioning.
* Provide templates (using idea sequencing/organizing methods along with the key words) of the content desired for written assignments.
* Do not leave your employees to form their own teams, where the person with NLD may be excluded. Assign them yourself. Place her with socially strong and well-respected co-workers. Also, take great care to ensure that she retains roles that maximize her verbal strengths. At the same time, train team leaders to prevent monologuing/monopolization of the group, something the employee with NLD can lapse into with a less experienced leader.
* Use straight text and bulleted items when preparing paper-based learning materials or Internet/Intranet training screens. Forget Information Mapping: he will be overwhelmed by many graphical elements, including tables and graphs.
* If necessary, transfer her into a workgroup where (1) the supervisor is known to avoid power struggles, constant threats, and rigid displays of authority/anger as ways of motivating people and (2) routines are clear and well-established.
* Handle reports of discrimination or harassment carefully, yet be sure to point out the laws related to these issues. Get his side of the story before presenting him with the complaint and the evidence.
A sample statement for harassment: "I know how much you appreciate Susan's kindness. She likes you, too, and it bugs her that she can't possibly pay back all you have given her. She's also unable to get a lot of work done. So you must leave her alone starting now. No phone calls, no gifts, no cards or letters, no following her around. Nothing."
For discrimination: "I know you didn't mean to say __________ to Susan (or tape up that picture), but that remark (picture) makes her unable to concentrate and do her job."
For both situations, follow up by saying, "Disrupting other people's work by doing things or saying things they get upset about is against company rules." Then, begin a discussion about a time where he avoided someone he didn't want to be around and that person kept bothering him, or he (the employee with NLD) was made fun of. Tie his experiences back to the situation at hand.
Document carefully. If the organization has progressive discipline and such a matter is treated as a formal written warning in the first counseling session with other employees, follow that procedure with the worker who has NLD. (Conversely, avoid the mistake of many employers: being heavy-handed with the worker who has NLD while doing little or nothing about more popular/high-profile co-workers known to or seen doing the same thing.) Consequences for ignoring the warning should be stated explicitly.
* Limit the time she spends on special/perseverative topics.
* Examine and, if needed, revamp the department's or organization's reward system. This employee's hard work and verbal fluency often gets him recommended for supervisory/management positions. His need to have everything explained, his overemphasis on detail, and his rigidities/anxieties make him better suited as a right-hand assistant or a senior specialist where he can concentrate on one assignment at a time and where he won't have to be responsible for the work of and tussles between other individuals. Raises, company-paid trips, gift certificates, time off, and other non-promotion kudos work very well.
Kelli Bond is president of the Cypress, California-based KBA/DesignWrite, a firm specializing in adult basic education, corporate communications, curriculum design/development for adult education programs in the workplace, employee communications, human resources, management/supervisory skills training, marketing communications, public relations, and technical communications. Having held staff, management, and external consulting positions in these fields, Kelli has worked with more than 50 organizations (including those in the Fortune 500), many on a repeat and/or long-term basis. She is the 1998 president of the American Society for Training and Development, Orange County Chapter and co-chairs that organization's Workforce Diversity and Globalization special interest group.
Since 1980, Kelli has been involved with disability issues in the workplace, conducting workshops and speaking on panels at various conferences over the years. In 1993, the City of Cypress appointed her to its technical advisory committee for the Americans with Disabilities Act. She has had adults with NLD and Asperger's Syndrome-among other disabilities-as students, employees, and co-workers. Kelli holds a B.A. in communications from California State University, Fullerton plus a certificate in human resources management from the University of California, Irvine. She also completed Goodwill Industries of Orange County's training program for job coaches.
While this article may be given to employers and vocational rehabilitation counselors of individuals with NLD, it may not be reprinted in any publication or web site without Kelli's permission. You may contact Kelli at firstname.lastname@example.org.