Nonverbal Learning Disability:
The Math and
by Gayle Zieman, Ph.D.
In this last article on Learning Disabilities (LD) we focus on an impairment, which unlike Dyslexia and associated spelling and written expression disorders, is not rooted in language difficulties. Nonverbal Learning Disabilities are the least recognized learning problems in the classroom, often being totally missed. Individuals with a Nonverbal Learning Disability (NLD) are frequently good readers, and their NLD often becomes obvious only after the first few grades in school.
A Nonverbal Learning Disability affects five to ten percent of all individuals who have a specific learning problem, and, unlike reading and spelling problems, affects girls and boys in approximately equal numbers and is much less likely to run in families. Often referred to as the "right hemisphere disability," NLD primarily stems from neurological deficits on the right side of the brain as opposed to
Dyslexia which is mostly a left hemisphere problem. Individuals with NLD have visual spatial weaknesses and usually struggle with math, handwriting, and sometimes social skills.
A child with NLD has skill weaknesses in all or most of the following basic areas: fine motor coordination (especially in the early grades), visual perception (accurately "seeing" and telling apart
complex shapes like letters), visual-motor integration (being able to draw or write what they see), visual memory (being able to remember visual patterns like a series of letters), and visual-spatial
organization (drawing a map or arranging placement of things on a page).
These are the young children who do not color or draw much, are not particularly interested in puzzles, and avoid toys that involve construction (Legos and blocks, for example). They may or may not have gross motor delays which result in general clumsiness and slowness to grasp tasks such as riding a bicycle. As late preschoolers and kindergarten children, the child showing NLD symptoms usually can learn to spell their name out loud much easier than they can write it. The NLD kid would much rather talk about something than do a cut and paste activity.
As older children and adults, NLD is manifest in a variety of weaknesses which include poor performance in art and often with visual tasks in physical education like shooting baskets and hitting
a ball. Difficulties are also seen with many daily spatial tasks such as using tools (can't remember which way to turn a screwdriver, for example), organizing visual tasks (like loading the dishwasher),
trouble estimating amounts of things (how far a mile is, how much is in a tablespoon), and struggling to read maps. Spatially, many NLD individuals have poor orientation skills. They often get lost in the
school building and can't remember which direction is north or even which way is right or left. Imagine the kid in driver's ed who held the backs of both hands in front of his face, extended both thumbs out, and exclaimed, "The one that makes an L shape, that's left!" Science and social studies books can also be quite a problem for the NLD suffererreading the text is no sweat, but those charts and graphs can be pretty confusing. For many with NLD, a thousand words is worth a lot more than two bar charts and a line graph.
Language, vocabulary, and auditory processing are the strongholds for someone with NLD. Learning to speak and read is usual no problem and, often these are areas of special proficiency. Having good language and auditory memory skills, NLD sufferers are often early readers and good spellers, at least until the middle of third grade when the spelling list begins to contain non-phonetic words (like "enough" and "Illinois") which have to be learned by visual memory. Rote, verbatim memory is often an area of mastery; like for the child who told me how to get to his class from the school office, "go five doors down the blue hall, then three doors in the green hall, and read 'Welcome' on the door." His teacher reported that when finding his way around he could be heard saying directions to himself.
Poor, slow, and labored handwriting is a very common feature of NLD. Torment in learning to write the letters they so easily learned to say can be the first clear NLD sign. Difficulty with handwriting,
Dysgraphia, can be caused by several difficulties: weak fine motor skills (often noted by trouble holding a pencil), poor visual perception (can't see the difference between h and k), deficits in
integration between visual perception and motor output (trouble drawing), or trouble associating shapes (letters) with sounds. The dysgraphic child often confuses letters and reverses similarly-shaped
letters (often incorrectly called "Dyslexia" which really means reading disorder) beyond first grade when most children can accurately write all of the letters. Other common early symptoms are
great trouble spacing words on a page (the words often run together), difficulty writing on a line, forgetting margins, and needing to write in large letters. I recently assessed a third grade boy with
these problems who proudly announced that he now had it all figured out: "You put a pinky finger (space) between words, a pointer finger after periods, and two fingers on each side of the page." I cheered him on, but told his parents that before the term papers of middle school arrive they should teach him to use a computer word processor.
Agony with learning mathematics, Dyscalculia, is a common NLD feature. Math is a significantly "right brain" activity involving visual spatial abilities. Conceptualizing math problems involves visualizing the operations. Addition, for example, is a mental operation of "seeing" sets of things being put together. Research has shown that NLD individuals can understand the language and verbal
reasoning aspects of a math problem fine, but can't "visualize" efficiently the relationships between the parts of the problem to actually perform the arithmetic operations. Research has also pointed
out that visual perceptual skills have a stronger relationship to math ability than does a person's general IQ.
There is some evidence that NLD children have a greater risk than most children, and possibly even children with other forms of learning disabilities, for developing emotional and social adjustment
problems. Some preliminary research indicates that NLD sufferers often have fewer friends, are overly dependent on their parents, and are prone to mood problems such as depression. One theory proposes that due to visual perception weaknesses individuals with NLD have trouble noticing and interpreting nonverbal social communication such as facial expressions and subtle body gestures. Data regarding NLD and social/emotional adjustment are sparse and certainly more research is needed.
For children with Dysgraphia, extra practice in handwriting and positioning written material on the page is the single most effective direct help. Often practicing in a large format, such as on dry erase
board or in a cookie sheet filled with sand can be especially productive. Allowing extra time to complete written assignments and providing page guides such as clearly marked margins can be helpful. Many primary grade students with Dysgraphia also do better with the introduction of cursive writing. Since cursive writing involves a flow between the letters and unlike printing does not have letters which are exact mirror images of each other (like b and d), many NLD children find it much easier to grasp. Learning to use a computer word processor can also be a major remedial aid for many. Training better performance in mathematics is not as straightforward. The primary strategy is to make mathematical operations more concrete and tangible. The hands-on manipulation of objects illustrating math concepts is preferred. Special colored sticks called Cuisenaire Rods are often helpful in teaching the basic operations of addition, subtraction, and multiplication. Also, early use of a calculator is a strong benefit for some. Given the general verbal strength of most NLD individuals, teaching them how to talk their way through the steps of math problems and learning step wise "recipes" for solving problems are other effective strategies.
It is unclear how much social adjustment and emotional functioning can be helped by direct training. More research is needed in this area.
In general, NLD individuals will require more time to complete work involving handwriting, artwork, spatial organization, and mathematics. They often need additional training in working with
graphs and charts, and may need special instruction in map reading and spatial orientation, such as finding their way around the school building. As with all learning disabilities, the best approaches are
quite individualized and are based on the unique pattern of assessed strengths and weaknesses observed at each grade level.
Helping Children Overcome Learning Disabilities,
Third Edition by Jerome Rosner, 1993
Learning Disabilities: A to Z,
by Corinne Smith and Lisa Strick, 1999
International Dyslexia Association (has a Southwest Branch
and annual Albuquerque conference), Baltimore, MD 21286,
Learning Disabilities Association of America, Pittsburgh, PA 15234,
National Center for Learning Disabilities, New York, NY,
Parents of Gifted Learning Disabled Children, Silver Springs, MD,
Recordings for the Blind and Dyslexic, Princeton, NJ,
Dr. Zieman is an Albuquerque psychologist who specializes in the evaluation of child, adolescent, and family problems. He frequently assesses children and adults with Learning Disabilities, behavior
problems, ADD/ADHD, and divorce related issues. You may learn more about Dr. Zieman at http://ABQ.MetroProfs.com/gzieman