Currently, there is no formalized psychiatric or medical diagnosis with specific, standardized diagnostic criteria that can be used to conclusively identify someone who suffers from a Nonverbal Learning Disorder (NLD).
Professionals in the field describe NLD as a spectrum of disorders that are typified by a group of pronounced neuropsychological deficits and strengths in the affected individual. These deficits and strengths are thought to be the result of a dysfunction in the right side of the brain of the individual. There is still a lot of ongoing research that is being carried out in an attempt to delineate the characteristics of NLD and compile a full list of disorders that are associated with the condition. Presently, the characteristics of NLD that listed as fairly universal are:
- Academic performance
- Social competencies
- Emotional functioning
- Visual-Spatial abilities
- Motor coordination
The added problem of diagnosing NLD is that the individual may not exhibit problems in every area stated above, and the intensity of the problem in each area may vary depending on the individual. This is part of the reason why NLD can escape the notice of those around the affected individual. It is estimated that one in ten children that have a learning disability is affected by NLD.
One of the peculiarities of NLD is that the disability seems to grow with the individual. As children, individuals with NLD will often develop speech and an enhanced vocabulary faster than their peers. They will also tend to have an exceptionally good rote memory accompanied by good attention to detail as far as auditory information is concerned. Advanced spelling and reading skills at an early age may also be the norm.
Despite the fact that individuals with NLD develop good reading skills at an early age, they find it difficult to understand what they are reading because they also tend to have poor higher level reasoning and organizational skills. Consequently, they lack proficiency in mathematics and experience problems with reading comprehension, concept formation and applying what is learned in one situation to a new one. Persons with NLD will find it difficult to cope with basic elementary school principles such telling time and handling money. Academic achievement in mathematics rarely goes beyond the elementary school level.
A summary of some of the characteristics related to academic performance is listed below:
- Their verbal IQ as measured using the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children (WISC) is usually higher than their performance IQ.
- They tend to have a highly developed vocabulary and verbal expression
- Exceptional attention to detail, but only as far as auditory information is concerned
- Exceptional memory and auditory skills
- Lack of aptitude in mathematics, telling time and solving abstract problems
- Difficulty in dealing with information in general form, leading to problems when trying to apply learned information to unfamiliar situations
Individuals with NLD often find it extremely difficult to manage unfamiliar situations, and tend to want to rely on memory and tried and tested behavior. Even a simple act such as playing a game they have not played before can be anxiety provoking to an individual with NLD.
When talking to other people, they may interrupt and change subject to unrelated and sometimes irrelevant issues. As a result, their friends may find them irritating and boring.
Since people with NLD also find it difficult to pick up on, and understand social cues like facial expression, tone of voice, and body language, they often find it difficult to maintain relationships. All this can lead to rejection and social isolation.
At a social level, people with NLD can be characterized as follows:
- They tend to interpret information in its literal sense, and process it at a concrete level
- They may come out as if they are uncooperative
- They have very little capacity to intuitively interpret what is said to them, unless it is explicitly stated
- They find it difficult to interact socially in fluid relationships
- They have a profound weakness in dealing with nonverbal communication such as facial expression, gestures and tone of voice
Because of their lack of capacity to learn from past experiences, people with NLD find it difficult to process and interpret their emotional experiences and that of other people. They can therefore look insensitive, running the risk of isolation, which may lead to depression and loss of self-esteem.
Some of the characteristics of this level are listed below:
- Depression and anxiety as a result of social isolation can be quite severe
- They fail to adapt to new circumstances or alteration of a routine
- Problems with self-esteem are very common
People with NLD tend to focus on what they see and fail to appreciate the full picture. As a result, they have a very poor visual memory and tend to stray from home as children, and getting lost, especially in unfamiliar territory is the norm. They find it a problem moving around, and have difficulty understanding spatial relationships, such as distance and size.
Because they have a poor visual memory, people with NLD find it difficult to remember what they have read or seen. Copying from the blackboard while in class and recognizing faces of people is an effort. This means that by the time they get to post elementary school level, where there is a lot of reading and writing, homework takes longer. This is when most of those with NLD decide to drop out.
- Distorted sense of time and space
- Bump into people and stand too close
Motor coordination in people with NLD often has problems with reflexes and lack proper coordination. They frequently have a poor sense of balance, and they frequently knock things over, bump into other people and often fail to perform any task that demands a good sense of balance.
- They more than often not seem to lack coordination and may do better in individual sports as opposed to team sports
- Difficulties with spatial perception, such as distance and size are common
- The difficulty in trying to learn to ride a bicycle and play ball sports
- Impaired motor skills result in poor handwriting
As stated before, this not an exhaustive list of characteristics of Nonverbal Disorders. A lot of research is still being conducted in an attempt to enhance our understanding of the subject.