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 standout for people who experience NVLD is that they have at least age appropriate verbal skills, such as speaking and being able to decode reading.

Instead, people who experience NVLD may have difficulty in a number of areas not related to verbal ability. Research from Columbia University suggests that NVLD differs from other disorders because NVLD is based on spatial processing—how the brain processes the size, shape, and location of objects.

Keep in mind that it is the difficulty with spatial processing that sets NVLD apart. While the name non-verbal learning disability could lead someone who is just learning about the disorder to think the disorder centers around a lack of verbal skill, it is really based on having normal verbal abilities yet struggling with spatial processing.

Defining Non-Verbal Learning Disability

Although NVLD first appeared in research literature in the 1960s, researchers are still working towards developing a commonly accepted set of characteristics and definitions for NVLD. This doesn't mean that NVLD is new or is suddenly appearing, but rather that researchers and other professionals who work with people experiencing learning disabilities are still doing research and reviewing what is known about NVLD, with the purpose of defining what makes the disorder unique from other disorders, and identifiable to those who may do evaluations.

Another reason researchers are working towards a common definition and criteria of NVLD is that it would be a major step toward the disorder being listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Once listed, people experiencing NVLD would have more access to support and help for the disorder from service providers such as occupational or physical therapists. Parents of children with NVLD may find it easier to access special needs services at school.

It appears that NVLD is now very close to having that accepted definition. In May of 2017, several researchers came together and created a proposed definition to add NVLD to the DSM.

The following is a list of NVLD qualities and characteristics created from current research and the proposed DSM definition sponsored by lead researcher Prudence Fisher, Ph.D., of Columbia University.

The Main Symptoms of NVLD

  • People with NVLD have 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.
  • They may have 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.
  • Has 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.
  • Difficult 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.

Other Common Symptoms Which May Be Experienced

  • Fine motor difficulties: Children with NVLD may struggle with detailed hand movements, such as handwriting, using scissors, or tying shoes.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

First Steps If You Think Your Child May Have NVLD

Begin by talking with your child's medical provider. Although NVLD is not a fully accepted diagnosis at this time, it is still worth discussing with your child's care provider. You can talk with your provider to see if there may be a medical basis for the symptoms you are seeing, rather than a learning disability. You can also talk with your provider to rule out conditions that have similar symptoms, such as autism spectrum disorders, dyscalculia, or ADHD.

Many parents find their children with NVLD need particular help learning social skills. This can increase opportunities for friendship and boost self-esteem.

Many children with NVLD also experience anxiety or depression. This may be the result of the struggles caused by trying to navigate their world with NVLD. Learning ways to reduce frustration, relax, and accept their positive talents can help.

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.

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Article Sources

Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial policy to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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