Nonverbal Learning Disabilities – an Overview

It is the wish of every parent that the children they raise will lead a normal life that is at least, free of any mental and physical disabilities or disorders. However, a disability like Nonverbal Learning Disability (NLD) can go unnoticed and undiagnosed because most of our societies and schools tend to place a person’s ability to read as the main indicator of academic and general well-being.

As a result, Nonverbal Learning Disabilities are less known compared to such a language based learning disability as dyslexia. Usually, it is only when such people are assessed, that their problems come to the fore. People with Nonverbal Learning Disability tend to exhibit a performance IQ that is a lot lower than their verbal IQ. This is because of weaknesses in their visual-spatial performance.

The problems experienced by a person with a Nonverbal Learning Disability seem to evolve as the individual gets older.


Although there is no formally recognized diagnosis, with some standard diagnostic criteria, NLD is often described as a syndrome that manifests itself as a group of uncommon deficits and strengths that are thought to result from a dysfunction of the right side of the brain. Children with NLD usually develop early reading and spelling skills.


Early Years

During the early years, individuals with Nonverbal Learning Disability tend to easily get lost, stray away from organized groups and from home. Because of problems with coordinating their own movements, they also often have problems trying to dress themselves, knock over and spill things on the table at mealtimes.

Most children with Nonverbal Learning Disability seem to mature quite early in their verbal communication skills, and learn to read before they reach school going age because of their strong sense of hearing. However, because of their poor spatial skills, they find it difficult to understand non-verbal information such as the passage of time, pictures, cartoons and carrying out non-verbal tasks like doing puzzles. They then try to compensate for their lack of spatial skills by asking the people around them a lot of questions in an attempt to understand the world around them instead of finding things out for themselves. Poor visual perception makes it difficult for them to conceptualize information in space and time in order to make sense of the physical world.

Learning Problems

During the early days of school, students with Nonverbal Learning Disability will often seem to have highly developed cognitive skills because of their strong verbal skills, but as they move on to secondary school level, they start experiencing academic problems.

While poor spatial skills make it difficult for NLD students to learn simple tasks like writing, reading, coloring maps, telling time and mathematics from an early age; by the time they reach secondary school they find that most of the subjects that they have to deal with are subjects whose language is based on nonverbal processes that require a high level of spatial awareness. This makes life more difficult for them.

Students with NLD will often appear to be poorly organized and generally inattentive simply because they find it difficult to integrate and make sense of the information that is being passed on to them. They tend to want to understand each detail separately, instead of the complete whole. As a result, the information quickly overwhelms them, they lose interest and may come up with coping mechanisms that may be interpreted by most people as misbehavior.

At university level, NLD students face problems because information is often given to them in the form of lectures. This information needs to be consolidated by writing it down into notes. This presents a problem because NLD students already find writing slow and awkward. It then becomes even more difficult to distinguish what is of importance, and what is of less importance in the lecture.

Emotional and Social

Interaction with other people in your community is one of the most important things in life. To any individual, this brings about emotional as well as social issues. This is the biggest area of concern when it comes to people with NLD.

The problem of having poor nonverbal and spatial information skills is that they can fail to notice, or misinterpret important social cues like tone of voice, facial expression and gestures. This can lead to social isolation and result in emotional problems for the individual with NLD. In a lot of cases, because children with NLD have highly developed verbal skills, teachers and parents alike usually attribute their social, emotional and academic problems to poor character and lack of trying. All this can dovetail to emotional problems like anxiety, which can then lead to physical issues such as stomach problems, headaches and phobias.

Some of the qualities of people with Nonverbal Learning Disabilities are listed below:

  • Exhibit poor memory to visual messages
  • Exhibit better than average memory for auditory messages
  • Poor ability in mathematics and other subjects based on non-verbal processes
  • Very good verbal reasoning and verbal expression
  • Exhibit problems with expression usually because of poor handwriting
  • Poor sense of direction, estimation of distance and size
  • Difficulty in reading social cues such as facial expressions, gestures and tone of voice

Some of the characteristic features of a person with NLD include:

  • Problems in dealing with negative feedback in complex situations
  • Difficulty in dealing with visual-spatial organization
  • Problems in dealing with cause and effect relationships
  • Highly developed verbal skills and memory capacity on matters related to verbal messages
  • Inappropriate behavior in unfamiliar and complex situations
  • Deficiencies in mathematics as compared to proficiency in reading and spelling
  • Distorted sense of time and space
  • Difficulties with social interaction, judgement and perception
  • Increased tendency to withdraw socially and isolation as age increases
  • Relying on verbal communication for relating socially, gathering information and relief from anxiety


It should be noted that people with NLD tend to possess certain strengths in combination with deficits. The combination and extent of each strength and deficit will depend on the individual affected. However, most individuals who suffer from NLD will show poor skills as far as social perception is concerned, poor visual-spatial capabilities, poor mathematical skills, but show highly developed verbal skills and a very good memory when it comes to verbal messages.

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