THE PARADOX OF NLD:
Learning Disorders in Adults and Children
What is NLD?
Learning Disorder (NLD) is an uncommon and poorly understood neurological
condition with a misleading name. It is not a disorder that causes people to be
nonverbal. Instead, it is a disorder that impairs the ability to process and
learn nonverbal information. Because communication is about two-thirds nonverbal
and only one-third verbal, the inability to understand nonverbal information can
cause profound difficulties. In particular, three areas are commonly impaired in
people with NLD:
people with NLD have poor visual recall, faulty spatial perceptions, or
difficulties with spatial relations. They may get lost easily, or have
difficulty finding things that are in plain sight. They may not be able to tell
their left from their right.
people with NLD have trouble understanding nonverbal communication such as
facial expression, body language, and tone of voice. They may not
"get" your shrugs, winks, grins, or wrinkled foreheads. They may have
trouble adjusting to transitions and novel situations or difficulty gauging
appropriate "personal space." Their deficits in social judgment and
social interaction may cause them to seem immature. Other people may consider
people with NLD have poor coordination, balance problems, or difficulties with
fine motor skills. They were probably late learning to tie their shoes or ride a
bike--or they may never have learned at all. They may have trouble catching a
ball. They may write slowly, and their handwriting may be illegible.
people with NLD do not show significant deficits in all three areas. Some people
will have major problems in one area, but only minor impairments in another.
Because NLD looks different in different people, it can be hard to diagnose.
Sometimes it resembles other disorders of communication, such as Asperger's
Syndrome (AS). It is sometimes misdiagnosed as ADHD (attention deficit
hyperactivity disorder) or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). And, to make
things even more complicated, it sometimes occurs in conjunction with AS, ADHD,
OCD, or other neurological disorders.
with NLD usually do not have deficits in verbal skills. In fact, many have
strong verbal skills that help offset their weakness in nonverbal communication.
This may show up as a discrepancy in their scores on standardized tests. On the
Weschler Intelligence Scale for Children, for example, some children with NLD
have scores 20 or 30 points higher on the verbal scale than on the performance
assets include early speech and vocabulary development, remarkable rote memory
skills, attention to detail, early reading skills development, and excellent
spelling skills. In addition, these individuals have the verbal ability to
express themselves eloquently. Moreover, persons with NLD have strong auditory
retention." (Sue Thompson, NLDline)
Many people with NLD learn to read early
(although their ability to "decode" words may exceed their ability to
understand the content). They are usually talkative--sometimes incredibly so.
Many people with NLD find that, if they can't say it, they can't understand it
or won't remember it. They need to talk to make sense of their world.
Who Has NLD? How Are They Affected?
is a disorder of paradoxes. Someone with NLD may be bright, articulate, and
extraordinarily intelligent. This same person may be utterly unable to perform
some of the simplest daily tasks.
frustration can be overwhelming. Without a diagnosis, not even the person with
NLD will know why he simply can't do some things that everyone else takes for
granted. He's smart enough. Why do other people call him lazy when he works
twice as hard as anyone he knows? Why do other people call him weird when he
does everything he can to fit in? The frustration hits children particularly
hard. But it's not limited to children. Although you can learn adaptive skills,
NLD is not something you grow out of.
a child, David hated dental visits. His mother thought he was uncooperative, but
when the dentist said, "Turn your head this way," David honestly
didn't know what "this way" was. Now, as an adult with NLD, he asks
the dentist to tell him--specifically and verbally--what she wants him to do.
a fourth grader with NLD, is an A student in math and social studies. She easily
memorizes whatever information is presented to her. She has no trouble doing her
homework right. But she can't copy assignments from the board, so she has
trouble doing the right homework.
the middle of fourth grade, Michael was depressed. Incredibly intelligent, he
was in a gifted classroom, but he couldn't understand the rules of playground
games. His endless monologues drove his classmates crazy. When he invited the
whole class to his birthday party, only one child came.
find Devon, a preteen with NLD, charming, cooperative, and a real delight. His
peers often pick on him, calling him a nerd or a weirdo--and, sadly, he's coming
to share their opinion.
is an intelligent and resourceful college student with NLD. If she walks into a
classroom and the chairs have been rearranged, though, she can't figure out
where to sit. She finds the change so disorienting that she may turn around and
an adult with NLD, has exceptional communication skills. She's creative and
adaptable. However, she can't think, listen, and write at the same time.
Definitely not the person to have taking minutes at the next staff meeting!
all these people have deficits in all three major skill areas, the variation is
enormous. Tera's most significant deficits are in the visual/spatial area; her
social skills are fine. Michael lacks age-appropriate social skills, but his
fine motor coordination is normal. Kate has poor fine motor skills. This
variation makes it all too easy to "diagnose" their problems as
immaturity or a lack of motivation.
Because they are often misunderstood and have repeated failures in all
types of social interaction, many people with NLD are extremely lonely. Children
with NLD are often targeted by bullies. Adults may suffer long periods of
unemployment and underemployment. Depression and anxiety are common at every
age, and, unfortunately, suicide can be a real risk when appropriate
interventions are not undertaken. These people need the support and
understanding of those around them if they are to achieve their potential--and
every single person
with NLD has their own unique strengths, abilities, and potential.
How Can I Help?
Scott's 4-year-old son was diagnosed with NLD, he responded this way:
of me at this point is scared to death, but the more I'm learning, the more I'm
settling down about the reality of our situation. Part of me is relieved to
finally get some meaningful clues, and part of me wants to cry because it's
dawning on me that this neurological thing is something he must contend with the
rest of his life; it's not a phase that will mercifully release him one day. I
also want to cry because I see him struggling valiantly to make sense of his
world, armed practically with only his verbal ability. He spends countless hours
telling his 'stories,' long monologues with only a hint of a plot, yet filled
with action and drama, that try to organize a swirling ocean of words and facts
in his mind. I want so desperately to give him more tools to even the
we interact regularly with someone with NLD--or if we have it ourselves--what
can we do to help even the fight?
Learn about NLD. The more information you have, the more effectively you can
support someone with NLD, and the better advocate you can be on their behalf.
Put everything in words! People with NLD can't "look and learn." They
may have trouble
following a demonstration. They may not be able to read a map. They need words.
Understand that they may not be able to "see" visual cues in their
environment. "It's over there, on the shelf under the dictionary" may
be completely understandable to most people, but convey absolutely nothing to
someone with NLD.
Protect children with NLD from bullies and from children who enjoy a good laugh
at their social ineptness.
Provide appropriate accommodations for physical limitations. A consultation with
an occupational therapist may be appropriate. Noncompetitive sports such as
swimming, jogging, or tai chi may be helpful in developing motor skills without
Understand their need to put their knowledge and experience into words. They may
not be able to remember things that they haven't said or written down. Their
chatter helps them organize their world and adapt to the situations they face.
a consistent routine, and provide a warning if the routine is going to change.
Many people with NLD lack the ability to "wing it" when the unexpected
occurs. They may be afraid of new unknown situations and experiences. More than
most people, they need to know what will happen next. They really don't like
* Focus on their strengths. It may seem
easier to focus on what needs to be fixed, but it's their strengths that will
allow them to overcome whatever weaknesses they have. Verbal praise,
encouragement, and positive feedback are powerful motivators; use them
Where Can I Get More Information?
adults with NLD, and parents and teachers of children with NLD have found the
following sources helpful.
NLD on the Web
Asperger Syndrome Coalition of the U.S.
Tera's NLD Jumpstation: A Resource on Nonverbal Learning Disabilities by an NLD Person
The Source for Nonverbal Learning Disorders, by Sue Thompson, M.A., C.E.T. Published by LinguiSystems; toll-free, 1-800-776-4332.
Star-Shaped Pegs, Square Holes: Nonverbal Learning Disorders and the Growing-Up Years, by Kathy Allen, M.A. Published by Unicycle Press. To order, call: Good Enough Books in Livermore, CA 925 443 4354
Hanging By a Twig: Understanding and Counseling Adults with Learning Disabilities and ADD, by Dr. Carol T. Wren (with psychotherapeutic commentary by Jay Einhorn). Published by WW. Norton and Company. URL for online orders: http://www.wwnorton.com/orders/wwn/070315.htm
The Nonverbal Learning Disorder Guide for Teachers, Parents, Employers and Therapists, by Rondalyn Varney Whitney, MOT, OTR. Email: Rondalyn@aol.com (or call (408) 248-3462).
Growing Up with NLD, by Deborah Green. Published by Silicon Heights Computers. Order toll-free, 1-800-654-6623, or on the Silicon Heights Web site.
Unaware: Living With Non-Verbal Learning Disability, by Laurie Reed. URL: Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Nonverbal Learning Disorders Association
2446 Albany Avenue
West Hartford, CT 06117
NLD-in-Common (an online organization)
As you read more on NLD, you'll find that the experts don't always agree with each other. NLD is still a new diagnosis, and there is still much about it that isn't yet known or understood, even by the experts. But we're learning. And as our knowledge grows, affected people are being diagnosed at earlier ages. Useful interventions are being identified. A combination of school or work accommodations, medication, social skills training, occupational therapy, and the understanding and support of family and friends can help equip people with NLD for a successful life.
Copyright (©) 2001 Nonverbal
Learning Disorders Association
brochure is published for informational purposes only. The Nonverbal Learning
Disorders Association does not endorse or recommend any professional product,
treatment, and/or service mentioned in this brochure. The viewpoints expressed
by each person contributing are that of the individual and do not construe
official approval by the Nonverbal Learning Disorders Association.