Non-Verbal Learning Disability vs. Asperger's

4 Key Differences to Tell the Difference

School girls walking hand in hand

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The appearance of symptoms in those who experience non-verbal learning disabilities (NVLD) and Asperger's syndrome have a number of similarities. Both groups struggle with learning social skills. Both groups may also struggle to find the major themes in stories, leading to reading comprehension issues.

To complicate matters, NVLD has yet to be listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which would give NVLD a commonly accepted set of symptoms for clinicians to diagnose NVLD. Plus, the fifth edition of this manual, the DSM-5, was updated to retire the Asperger's diagnosis in favor of autism spectrum disorder.

Keep in mind that a listing in the DSM doesn't prove whether or not a condition exists, but it can shape how the condition is defined and diagnosed, so that those who experience it can access proper treatment and support.

What Is NVLD?

NVLD is a learning disability that impacts spatial and visual-spatial processing. In other words, a person with NVLD struggles to understand the size, shape, direction, orientation, and movement of physical objects around them. NVLD does not affect verbal abilities such as speaking or decoding words when reading.

What Is Asperger's Syndrome?

As mentioned, Asperger's syndrome is now categorized by the DSM as autism spectrum disorder (ASD). ASD is defined as a disorder that includes differences and/or challenges in social communication skills, fine and gross motor skills, speech, and intellectual ability.

Those quick definitions do show some overlap in how symptoms may appear on the surface, while a deeper look demonstrates the differences.

  • Difficulty perceiving body language and object location

  • Difficulty with motor skills, may be accident-prone

  • Average to advanced verbal abilities

  • Repetitive behaviors not seen as part of the condition

  • Difficulty interpreting body language and expression

  • Only some have motor skill difficulties

  • Commonly have issues with speech

  • Repetitive behaviors are common

Difference 1: Difficulty Understanding Body Language

People with NVLD struggle with noticing the differences in how things around them look. They may find it difficult to tell the difference between two different sized objects, or the shape of those objects. This can make it challenging to notice the difference in someone's body language. Someone with NVLD may not process that a smile and frown are not the same. Difficulty processing distances and position of objects can lead someone with NVLD to not understand or notice how far apart or close they are to someone else.

Someone with autism may be aware of another person's body language, but rather struggle with interpreting the meaning of body language and expression.

Difference 2: A Look at "Clumsiness"

The struggle with spatial processing that is characteristic of NVLD can make it difficult to move about in physical space, or even to perform fine motor skills. Because they have difficulty understanding where they are in relation to their environment, people experiencing NVLD may be accident-prone. They may also have problems mentally processing what they are doing with their hands when learning to write or tie shoes.

People with autism often struggle with motor skills, but these struggles are not characteristic of all people with autism. When motor delays are present, it is often in the form of coordination or planning movement.

Difference 3. Speech Abilities

One of the main characteristics of NVLD is that it does not impact verbal ability. Those with NVLD have average or advanced verbal abilities.

Issues with speech are common for people with autism, although many people with milder forms of autism do have excellent verbal ability.

Difference 4. Repetitive Movements and Rituals

People with autism will often use repetitive movements as a way to soothe or calm themselves. This may take the form of rocking back and forth, pacing back and forth, making a sound over and over, and finger snapping. They may also have other repetitive behaviors.

These repetitive behaviors are not part of NVLD.

A Word From Verywell

While getting to a correct diagnosis of either NVLD or ASD may seem challenging, you can continue to watch your child and pursue available options for support in your community and school. Remember that each person is unique, and trying different strategies with your child to see what helps them is something you can do at home regardless of where you are in your search to get a correct diagnosis.

Understanding the key differences can help you to know what to look for, as well as what to explain to school personnel and other supportive adults in your child's life.

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7 Sources
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