What Are Nonverbal Learning Disorders?

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on October 07, 2022

When you hear the word "disorder," you may automatically think of a serious problem or a negative thing that needs to be fixed. Still, while it may make it more challenging for children with nonverbal learning disorders to navigate certain situations, it's nothing you can't get through. Children with nonverbal learning disorders simply have a different way of learning and digesting information. With the right treatment and care, nonverbal learning disabilities can be managed and make school and other activities much less stressful for you and your child.

What Is a Nonverbal Learning Disorder?

Nonverbal learning disorders are usually diagnosed in grade school children. Despite the "nonverbal" in their name, children with these nonverbal learning disabilities (NLD) usually have great verbal skills, so it's easy to miss the signs. Learning usually becomes more of an issue, though, as the child gets older and their classes become more complex.

An NLD disorder may prevent you from picking up on certain concepts or patterns. It affects your spatial reasoning, motor skills, and social skills. Kids with an NLD will usually have a hard time understanding "the big picture" and can sometimes feel isolated from others because of it.

What Causes Nonverbal Learning Disorders?

Doctors and researchers don't yet know exactly what causes nonverbal learning disorders, and many healthcare professionals disagree about whether such disabilities even exist. Currently, nonverbal learning disabilities are not included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). Nonverbal learning disorders are also not covered by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Some research, though, shows that nonverbal learning disorders are developmental and involve the right hemisphere of the brain. This is because the right hemisphere is the part that you use to combine information from the different senses (sight, hearing, smell, etc.).

These problems in the right hemisphere can occur during pregnancy or birth. The chances of NLD are much greater in your child if the case of:

  • A mother who smoked, drank alcohol, or was ill during pregnancy
  • A protracted labor
  • Complications like a nuchal cord (i.e., the umbilical cord wrapped around the child's neck during birth)
  • Premature babies or those who are very small at birth 
  • Infants who are prone to serious infections

NLD affects both boys and girls equally. 

Affected children may also be on the autism spectrum or have some other form of learning disorder that could run in the family.

Nonverbal Learning Disorder Symptoms

Children with nonverbal learning disabilities may start talking early on and even have a better vocabulary than children their age. However, your child may have an NLD if they have difficulty with any of the following: 

  • Learning how to write certain letters, including "K" and "Y" 
  • Writing inside the margins of their paper or combining written words rather than putting spaces in between
  • Spelling words that are tougher to sound out, like "through"
  • Not picking up on words they've read multiple times, making them slower at reading
  • Messy handwriting 
  • Remembering information but not knowing why it's important
  • Lack of coordination or clumsiness (for example, frequent spills)
  • Misreading of situations or social queues 
  • Trouble organizing thoughts 
  • Inability to easily adjust to change 
  • Difficulty picking up sarcasm and taking things too literally

You may also notice your child talks a lot, even when they don't have anything pressing to say, or maybe they focus on details but miss the main idea. They learn in a more linear and sequential manner, which can lead them to miss the dimensions of a topic. Children with NLD also have a hard time making friends. 

If you notice any of these symptoms in your child and think they might have NLD, be sure to find a specialist who can help you treat them.

Diagnosing a Nonverbal Learning Disability

If you think your child has a nonverbal learning disability, talk to your child's pediatrician. They may be able to refer you to one or more specialists. These specialists could be therapists, neuropsychologists, and/or speech and language pathologists. After your child has been properly diagnosed with NLD, you can determine which professionals are best suited to meet their particular needs.

During the appointment, your child's provider will ask you about their NLD symptoms and medical history. They will examine your child and converse with them to get a better understanding of their symptoms. They may also perform a brain scan to rule out any physical problems.

While NLD is not an official diagnosis, your child's provider will likely run several types of tests and offer you recommendations to make learning easier for your child. Depending on their recommendations, you may communicate these to your child's teachers so that they can better accommodate them in the classroom.

How Are Nonverbal Learning Disorders Treated?

NLD doesn't have any medical treatments, but there are certain strategies and interventions you can use to help your child. Once a provider has evaluated your child and determined their individual needs, they may recommend the following forms of management: 

  • Sensory integration therapy, which is used to develop your child's sense of touch and movement through games
  • Training in social skills to help your child interact with those around them
  • Physical therapy to help cultivate balance and strength
  • Focused learning in certain subject areas your child might be struggling with 

If your child has NLD, be sure to find out what programs you might be able to enroll them in at their school. Most grade schools offer special programs for children with unique learning needs. Make sure to also inform your child's teachers about specific accommodations you might have discussed with their provider. That way, their teachers are made aware and can also better monitor your child's learning and social interactions with their peers.

Can Children with Nonverbal Learning Disorders Live Normal Lives?

Despite the name "disability" or "disorder," children with NLD can live completely normal lives, especially when their disability is caught early on. In fact, children with NLD are incredibly intelligent – they just process information a bit differently. Kids with NLD have great reading skills and often perform better than their peers in many areas. They learn best through listening and have a great verbal memory, which makes it easier for them to remember many details. 

With the right nonverbal learning disorder treatment and resources at their disposal, children with NLD can go on to have great careers and achieve just as much, if not more, than others.

Show Sources

Child Mind Institute: "What is a Non-Verbal Learning Disorder?"
Dignity Health: "What is a Nonverbal Learning Disability?"
Learning Disabilities Association of America: "Non-Verbal Learning Disabilities."
Smart Kids with Learning Disabilities: "Nonverbal Learning Disabilities: An Overview."
Tufts Medical Center: "Nonverbal Learning Disability."
Understood: "What are Nonverbal Learning Disorders."

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