NLD and the School Age Child 

by Margaret J. Kay, EdD

The school-aged child with NLD often evidences delays in motor development, decreased exploratory activity as a preschooler, hypoactivity, poor peer relationships, an over dependency on parents, and pragmatic deficiencies in language usage (Rourke, 1995). The NLD child may resist participation in group activities and have difficulty with interactive play due to his or her poor ability to understand the behavior of others (Voeller, 1994).

The language development of the NLD child may appear advanced due to his or her extensive vocabulary, fluent speaking and intelligible use of words. Close observation, however, often reveals that the NLD child has difficulty with the pragmatic features of language and is unable to conduct interactive conversations. The NLD child may focus on topics that are of little interest to his or her peers and discuss subjects which are unrelated to the conversation of a group (Voeller, 1994).

An NLD child also often exhibits deficits in visual perceptual organization in contrast to more average verbal skills. This child’s attention to verbal input is often poor, however, and deficiencies in visual attention are also apparent, especially when the child is engaged in reading or writing (Rourke, 1995). 

The NLD child often exhibits little exploratory behavior and displays a marked tendency toward sedentary and physically limited modes of functioning. This tendency often increases with age (Rourke, 1995).

Although many NLD children display adequate long-term memory for information that is coded verbally, their short-term memory for non-verbal material is often poor. They may evidence significant difficulty dealing with cause-and-effect relationships and evidence marked deficiencies in the ability to appreciate incongruity. They often do not exhibit age appropriate sensitivity to humor and also evidence poor pragmatic language usage (Rourke, 1995).

NLD children typically evidence deficits in comprehension, particularly social comprehension. Difficulty with reading comprehension, especially for novel material, may increase as they get older and will significantly interfere with academic learning and test taking. 

While NLD students often display academic proficiency in reading decoding and spelling, their skills in arithmetic calculation, reading comprehension and inferential thinking are often poor by comparison (Rourke, 1995).

Children with Non-Verbal Learning Disorders (NLD) often display persistent difficulty in academic subjects involving problem solving and complex concept formation. As the necessity to engage in such thinking increases during later elementary and middle school grades, the deficits of NLD children become more obvious (Rourke, 1995).


NLD and the Middle School Transition 

NLD children often experience significant difficulty adapting to novel and otherwise complex situations. They evidence an over-reliance on rote behavior and may become oppositional or avoidant when required to organize, analyze and synthesize new information. As the demand for such higher-level thinking and organizational skill increases during middle school years, the problems of NLD children become more debilitating (Rourke, 1995).

NLD children typically display significant deficits in social perception, social judgment and social interaction, which may become more prominent with increasing years (Rourke, 1995). Many pre-teenagers and adolescents with Non-Verbal Learning Disorders display a marked tendency toward social withdrawal and even social isolation with advancing years. While acting out behaviors and conduct problems may be evident in young NLD children, indications of excessive anxiety, depression and associated internalized forms of social and emotional disturbance may become increasingly problematic when NLD children enter adolescence (Rourke, 1995). 

Although often hyperactive during early childhood, NLD children generally become more hypoactive as they get older (Rourke, 1995). They are frequently described by others as "socially immature" and may suffer from a disturbed body image (Johnson & Myklebust, 1960). Due to their difficulties with interpreting non-verbal social cues, processing novel stimuli and expressing emotion appropriately through voice and facial expression (Ozols & Rourke, 1985), NLD teens often experience more difficult adolescent transitions than those with normal social competencies.

Characteristics often attributed to NLD adolescents and adults include:

  • Shyness and introversion
  • An inability to display affect
  • Chronic emotional difficulties
  • Poor social perception, and
  • Impaired visual-spatial skills (Badian, 1992; Weintraub & Mesulam, 1983).

Academic difficulties, which interfere with school performances and test taking, may include:

  • Poor work habits
  • Slowness in getting started and finish
  • Disorganization (losing things, forgetfulness)
  • Poor peer relationships
  • Dependency on parents and teachers for support
  • Low test grades due to poor comprehension
  • Difficulty with complex mathematical reasoning and problem solving
  • Difficulty accepting criticism (Badian, 1992).


Badian, N. A. (1992). Nonverbal learning disability, school  behavior and dyslexia. Annals of Dyslexia, 42, 159-178. Johnson, D. J. and Myklebust, H. R. (1960). Learning Disabilities: Educational Principles and Practices. NY: Grune & Stratton.

Ozols, E. J. and Rourke, B. P. (1985). Dimensions of social sensitivity in two types of learning-disabled children. In B.P. Rourke (Ed.) Neuropsychology of Learning Disabilities. NY: Guilford Press.

Rourke, B. P. (Ed.) (1995). Syndrome of Nonverbal Learning Disabilities: Neurodevelopmental manifestations. NY: Guilford Press.

Voeller, K. K. (1994). Clinical neurologic aspects of the right-hemisphere deficit syndrome. Journal of Child Neurology, 10 (1), 516-522.

Weintraub, S. and Messulam, M. M. (1983). Developmental learning disabilities of the right hemisphere: Emotional, interpersonal and cognitive components. Archives of Neurology, 40, 463-468.

© Margaret J. Kay, 1999. All rights reserved.

Margaret J. Kay, EdD, Diplomate, American Board of Psychological Specialties in Educational & School Psychology (DABPS) with Forensic Specialization in Educational & School Psychology, Nationally Certified School Psychologist (NCSP), has been a psychologist in private practice in Lancaster, Pennsylvania since 1980. Her areas of specialization include educational and school psychology, and child neuropsychology.

This article was originally published on the web site of Margaret J. Kay, EdD (, and is posted on NLDline with the permission of the author. It may be downloaded and printed for personal reference, but not otherwise copied, altered in any way or transmitted to others without the written permission of the author.