Non-Verbal Learning Disabilities

Girl learning to tie her shoelaces

People who experience non-verbal learning disability (NVLD) struggle with spatial and social skills. A key feature of NVLD is that someone does have age appropriate verbal skills, such as speaking and being able to decode reading, but have difficulty in areas not related to verbal ability.

Research from Columbia University suggests that NVLD is related to how the brain processes the size, shape, and location of objects (spatial processing).

Difficulty with spatial processing sets NVLD apart from other types of learning disabilities.

While the name non-verbal learning disability suggests that someone lacks verbal skills, the disorder actually involves having normal verbal abilities and struggling with spatial processing.

Defining Non-Verbal Learning Disability

NVLD first appeared in research literature in the 1960s, but researchers are still developing a commonly accepted set of characteristics and definitions for the disorder.

That doesn't mean that NVLD is new or is suddenly appearing; rather, it means that researchers and professionals who work with people who have learning disabilities are still reviewing what is known about NVLD. One purpose of their research is to define how the disorder is unique and identifiable to those who do evaluations.

Researchers are also working toward a definition and criteria for NVLD because it would be a major step in getting the disorder listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). 

As of May 2017, a team of researchers led by Prudence Fisher, Ph.D., of Columbia University had created a proposed definition to add NVLD to the DSM.

Once listed, people experiencing NVLD would have more access to support and services for the disorder, such as physical and occupational therapy. It could also make it easier for parents of children with NVLD to access services at school.

The following is a list of NVLD qualities and characteristics created from current research and the proposed DSM definition.

The Main Symptoms of NVLD

Common Symptoms of NVLD include the following:

  • Difficulty determining where objects are in the environment in relation to their self: This includes poor physical awareness, which may show up as clumsiness as the person has difficulty orienting their body to their surroundings. It can also lead to what appear to be inappropriate social interactions, such as standing too close or too far from someone.
  • Difficulty following spatial directions and recalling spatial relationships: Problems with spatial processing make it difficult to process directions when traveling or determining where they are in relation to their environment.
  • Good verbal skills: They have decent or excellent vocabularies. They may be able to memorize long lists of words, yet have difficulty understanding what the words mean. They may be able to read the words of a story, yet have trouble identifying the overall meaning and main points.
  • Frequent difficulties in spatial or visual-spatial processing: This includes difficulty with shape, size or location or direction of objects. This can make it difficult to assemble puzzles or complete hands-on building projects.

Other Common Symptoms

Other common symptoms of NVLD include the following:

  • Academic struggles: The issues with spatial recognition make it challenging for those with NVLD to recognize patterns, tell the difference between objects to be counted, or to visualize amounts and direction for math problems. Because verbal skills are fine, reading problems may not develop until later grades, when reading comprehension is emphasized rather than decoding words. Good verbal ability may keep a child with NVLD from having their struggles become obvious until third grade or later.
  • Difficulties with social functioning: People with NVLD are able to empathize with others, but often have difficulty understanding humor or more abstract communication. They often take everything very literally.
  • Executive functioning problems: People experiencing NVLD may have trouble maintaining focus and concentration, following long sets of instructions, staying on task, or organizing their materials. Research is unclear at this time if these issues stem from the spatial processing issues, or are separate issues that often occur alongside NVLD.
  • Fine motor difficulties: Children with NVLD may struggle with detailed hand movements, such as handwriting, using scissors, or tying shoes.
  • Issues with personal functioning and self-care: Problems with fine motor skills can make it difficult to change clothing. It may also delay toilet training.
  • Social cognition or pragmatic communication problems: The difficulties with processing shape, direction, and size make it difficult to recognize nuanced changes in body language and other non-verbal communication.

How to Get Help

If you think your child may have NVLD, start by talking with your child's medical provider. Although NVLD is not a fully accepted diagnosis, it's worth bringing your concerns to your child's doctor.

A doctor can determine if there is a medical basis for your child's symptoms rather than a learning disability. Specialists can rule out conditions that have similar symptoms, such as autism spectrum disorders, dyscalculia, or ADHD.

If your child does have a learning disability, it's important to educate yourself on what they'll need at school and at home. For example, parents may note that children with NVLD need help learning social skills. Working on these skills increases a child's opportunities for friendship and boosts their self-esteem.

Parents should also be aware that children with NVLD can also experience anxiety or depression. Learning healthy ways to reduce frustration, relax, and accept their positive talents can help them cope with the challenges NVLD presents.

A Word From Verywell

While NVLD is not a commonly accepted diagnosis, you can find ways to help your child improve and overcome areas where they struggle. By understanding your unique child, you will be able to help encourage their strengths and support them in challenging areas.

Continue to learn and advocate for your child. Read and learn more about NVLD and similar disorders to find strategies you can use at home and in school with your child.

1 Source
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Margolis AE, Broitman J, Davis JM, et al. Estimated prevalence of nonverbal learning disability among North American children and adolescentsJAMA Netw Open. 2020;3(4):e202551. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2020.2551

Additional Reading

By Lisa Linnell-Olsen
Lisa Linnell-Olsen has worked as a support staff educator, and is well-versed in issues of education policy and parenting issues.