Tips: The View from Within: Understanding Nonverbal Learning Disabilities
An increasing number of children and youth seeking Integra’s services have
learning profiles with the constellation of traits called “nonverbal learning
disability” (NLD). This is a complex disorder, often not well understood by
caregivers and educators. As with
other learning disabilities, problems in behaviour and lifeskills associated
with nonverbal learning disabilities are often mistakenly attributed to negative
character traits such as laziness, stubbornness, and uncooperativeness. Grasping
“the view from within” and putting ourselves in the shoes of children and
youth with learning disabilities is critical in order to effectively understand
and help them.
by Margaret Amerongen, M.S.W., R.S.W.
Children with NLD often have relatively well-developed vocabulary and rote
memory for facts, but struggle in one or more of the following areas:
- visual-spatial skills: poor understanding of what is taken in visually,
poor perception of the relative positions of objects in space;
- organizational skills: how things fit together in patterns, in time, and
in space; e.g. breaking tasks down into component parts and combining parts
to make the whole;
- motor skills: physical awkwardness, writing problems;
- social and emotional problems due to difficulty processing complex or
novel information. These children have trouble learning the meaning of the
actions, the nonverbal behaviour, and the emotions of others. They struggle
with adjusting to novelty or transitions. All of this leads to problems in
social judgement and social interaction.
Children with NLD are often labeled as behaviour problems because it is not
recognized that their problems are neurological in origin.
Everyday tasks can be confusing and overwhelming for children with NLD.
These can include:
- finding their way around a school or a neighbourhood
- remembering where they put things or how to find them; tidying a room,
notebook or knapsack
- coping with the complexity of a group of children playing: what is fair,
what is socially acceptable to say or do, how to appropriately enter and
continue a conversation
- adjusting to any alteration in routine or grasping a change in rules or
method of completing tasks
Children with NLD often have “meltdowns” or detach themselves by
“spacing out” because they are overloaded with the sheer effort of
navigating situations that other children learn to cope with automatically. For
example, the child may avoid or react angrily to any sort of novelty because he
or she is not able to quickly and accurately understand the new situation.
Children with NLD often talk incessantly. This may be because they rely heavily
on their well-developed language skills to interact with others and to cope with
ever-present confusion and anxiety. Social problems frequently occur because the
child with NLD does not understand the idea of “personal space”, or the
nonverbal signals that other people use to convey irritation, anxiety, etc.
Often the child does not understand the give and take of play and conversation.
He or she may be unaware that the listener is bored. The child with NLD may try
to control play in order to cope with his or her uncertainty and anxiety. The
child with NLD frequently but unintentionally makes inappropriate comments and
then is bewildered when others become upset.
What caregivers and teachers can do:
- Learn as much as they can about NLD and how it specifically affects their
own child.This will help them to understand the meaning of the child’s
behaviour and to set realistic expectations for him or her. This knowledge
will help the caregiver to attain “the view from within” and put
themselves in the child’s shoes in order to compassionately and
effectively help. Lack of knowledge about NLD can lead to unrealistic
demands, expectations and frequent criticism. The heartbreaking result can
be serious erosion in the child’s self esteem and in the caregiver’s
- Recognize that uncooperative behaviour may be the result of feeling
confused, anxious and overwhelmed.
- Give the child verbal direction and instruction. Use the child’s verbal
strengths to help him learn from explicit instruction what other children
learn implicitly. Explicitly teach her such details as: what is expected in
different social, family, and school situations; how others feel, how to
organize and carry out tasks, etc. It has been wryly noted (see Sue
Thompson’s book) that parents may find themselves saying of their child
with NLD, “I shouldn’t have to tell you everything!”The truth is that
the child with NLD does need to be taught muchof what other children learn
automatically – they need to be taught, however, with kindness and
- Manage the environment. Children with NLD need predictable schedules as
much as possible. They need preparation for changes in routines and to be
given notice that they are about to be asked to make a transition in
activities. They need advance planning and instruction about unfamiliar
tasks and situations.
This Tip article can provide only the briefest of introductions to NLD and
suggestions for coping.
Our information is drawn from the following books:
All of these books are available at local bookstores.
- Nonverbal Learning Disorders at Home by Pamela Tanguay
- The Source for Nonverbal Learning Disorders by Sue Thompson
- Helping a Child with Nonverbal Learning Disorder or Asperger’s
Syndrome by Kathryn Stewart