By Kathy Allen, MA c. 2000
(Syndrome of Nonverbal Learning Disabilities) is a complex disorder of the brain
that causes wide-ranging effects on the day-to day functioning of young adults
in work and college. The most likely cause for this disorder is a congenital or
traumatic injury to the right brain. This is the location of the majority of the
long, mylenated fibers which are the “highways” of the brain. The right
brain takes care of many diverse functions such as planning, organization,
social interaction, maintaining mood, and coordination.
each individual is affected differently,
this disability generally impacts a young adult’s ability to organize
schedules, carry through on tasks which require multi-step planning and
follow-through, and deal with changes in time and place. Difficulty with subtle
nonverbal cues are also common in most NLD students. NLD often causes high
anxiety and impairs the fluid use of socially correct language. Double meanings,
sarcasm, and polite white lies are all difficult for these young adults.
of these students are very bright academically, and it is easy for professionals
and teachers to be confused or annoyed by the gap between their high academic
skills and their poor organizational abilities. Unlike blindness or other
sensory disorders, this disability is invisible. While students with cerebral
palsy are routinely provided with note takers or computers,it is very difficult
for college students with NLD to receive services. Frequently, these students
are told they are irresponsible and should just try harder. But since NLD is a
serious condition, the student is only able to achieve success when specific
interventions are in place. Without help, students can become crippled by
anxiety and shame, frequently dropping out of school and developing severe
psychiatric problems. With these interventions, many students succeed in work
methods used are neither complex nor expensive, but they do require a radical
change in perspective. First, professionals must be educated about the
disability. This will lead to the understanding that right-brain injuries are
real, although invisible, and pose a great challenge to the student. Counselors
must be positive and affirming, and let the student know that they are a team
who will work together to find strategies and support for the student. Young
adults with NLD are so used to school and work authorities who are frustrated
with them that even this simple change in perspective can be very powerful.
Having an informed, helpful person to aid in the student’s problem-solving is
crucial to student success. Given the time constraints that many professionals
and teachers face, a question often asked is, “How can I achieve a basic
understanding of NLD?” There are excellent articles available at www.NLDline.com
or www.NLDontheweb.org However, a model I use with students may be useful in
seeing how the condition impacts day to day living.
(Here I insert the model with the island in the middle with the palm trees, and grass hut, then other concentric circles that get into the area of comfort like words about facts, predictable safe people, routine and structure. Outside of that are the circles with time and spaces that change, unpredictable people, ideas about theoretical people.)
this model, it can be seen that the student with NLD is most at home in the
world of words about unchanging, intellectual facts. Students enjoy and excel at
learning the vocabulary and rules about everything from physics to computer
games. This ability is a mixed blessing, as our society often defines people
with large vocabularies as being very bright and capable in all areas.
Instructors and counselors may be surprised and indignant when NLD students do
so poorly in organization and time management, forgetting deadlines,
appointments, and changes in class time. We know from experience that most
students with NLD will do best in classes or jobs that have a heavy emphasis on
facts, memorization, and a built-in schedule. Classes in which the bulk of work
is done in class are especially successful, such as writing workshops, labs, or
practicums which use special equipment. This is because the class itself
provides the structure for the student.
accepting people are also near the area of comfort, and from this we see that
students/workers find it easiest to succeed if they deal mainly with these types
of people. Most students with NLD suffer from a great deal of anxiety due in
part to the disorder and in part from their inability to read faces and
nonverbal language with ease. NLD students should have access to instructors and
counselors who will be accepting of the fact that the student may need
outside the comfort zone are ideas and inferences about facts. We can see that
critical thinking may challenge students a little more. Drawing conclusions,
solving problems that are written or presented in a different way than they were
taught, and some aspects of inferential thinking may be more difficult than one
would expect. Symbolism in novels, stories, and poems can be quite difficult for
further outside the zone of competence, we see that issues of time and space
will pose challenges for the student affected by NLD. It may take anywhere from
a several days to a few years for a student to navigate around the college or
large work area. Support staff can help offering an escort to help point out and
write down landmarks, a “script” of where to go, while some students with
NLD will use a map.
is equally difficult for our students to cope with time. Time is simply not a
concrete fact that can be seen or touched, so it has little reality for these
students. Regular appointments for work meetings or office hours are preferable
to those which change. Use of an appointment book is very helpful. Ideally, a
student will be shown several different ways to keep track of appointments,
rather than only one. For important appointments, an e-mail or phone call from a
counselor or coach can be a great first step. After a few weeks, the student can
call the coach as a check-in that he/she remembered the appointment. It should
not be assumed that the student is unmotivated based only on ability to be
present at an appointment, as this is a part of the disability.
outside the comfort zone, (near the alligators!) we find unpredictable people
and those who are ignorant of the impact that NLD has on a student.
“Unpredictable people” for NLD students, are those who moods or disposition
alter quite a bit from day to day, those who have a very neutral face with
little expression, or those who raise their voices at unexpected times. This can
be very stressful for the student. If the unpredictable person is accepting of
the student, however, most students can eventually learn to cope with this type
greatest problem for students with NLD are people who are know nothing about NLD
and are aggressive or hostile toward the student. Many are sure that the student
has just been overprotected and needs to deal with the “real world”. While
“tough love” works with some students, it rarely does with the NLD student.
They misread “tough love” as meaning the employer or instructor hates them,
and they rarely understand such vague concepts as “pull yourself together”,
or “grow up”. Instead of making positive changes, they are flooded with
would be best for students to avoid this type of person if possible. If not, the
student should go with an anchor person who can help with the situation. Role
plays in which the student successfully explains the disability to a sympathetic
listener, even by initially giving an information sheet about NLD and answering
questions, should be extensively used first. This can be followed by
explanations to an sympathetic adult (such as an instructor) in a real life
setting. Only then should role plays toward a person with a more negative
students have so often been told, “You ought to know that by now!”
that they are very hesitant to seek help. It will help to tell the student that
you will not shame her for asking “stupid” questions. After an explanation,
have them explain the work assignment back to you. It’s useless to say, “Do
you understand?” when a student isn’t sure what he or she might be missing.
for many students, one of the most difficult things in college or work is to
make a hypothesis about the imagined behavior of people not personally known to
the student. This struggle is seen in work when young adults deal with the
general public, especially with frustrated customers. It’s also seen when
students try to respond to questions in literature classes. Tutoring may be
helpful here, as are templates for writing. In the same way, a worker should
receive clear directions about how to handle people related problems. The more
detail offered, the better the results will be.
strategies in helping the student will include:
Using student’s strengths in memory and rules to offset other problems
Providing extra help in management of time and organization
Use predictable, accepting people to problem solve solutions.
Emphasize self-advocacy through scripts and role play
Offers of help develop systems for student to track appointments
Understand that the student is hesitant to ask for help.
Offer tutoring for written assignments, especially novels or stories
which involve complex characters and symbolism.
There are many other ways to help, including low and high-tech aids, but they are beyond the scope of this article. Although the focus here has been on the young person’s challenges, NLD young adults also have many wonderful traits such as persistence, reliability, honesty and a desire to succeed. Helping them to use their strengths to compensate for their problems is the key to success.