Success for Young Adults with NLD

By Kathy Allen, MA c. 2000

NLD (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.

Although 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.

Many 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 and school.

The 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 or 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.)

 From 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.

 Predictable, 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 accommodations.

 Just 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 these students.

 Moving 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.

 It 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.

 Far 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 of person.

 The 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 anxiety.

 It 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 mindset begin.

 NLD 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.

 Finally, 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.

 Key strategies in helping the student will include:

 ·        Understanding NLD

·        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.