Nonverbal Learning Disorder: Answers to Common Questions
While it’s not as well known as dyslexia, nonverbal learning disorder, or NVLD, can have significant impacts on a child, both in and out of the classroom.
Parents of children who have been newly diagnosed are often unfamiliar with NVLD, and are left with a number of questions about what NVLD is, how it affects their child, and how it differs from other learning disabilities.
We sat down with NVLD expert and friend of Churchill Michele Berg, PhD, to get answers to some of these common questions. As founder of the Center for Learning Disorders at the Family Service and Guidance Center, Dr. Berg has decades of experience working with students with NVLD. She also wrote the foreword for Helping Children with Nonverbal Learning Disabilities to Flourish: A Guide for Parents and Professionals.
Churchill: Tell us about your work with students who have NVLD.
MB: My interest started probably 15 or 20 years ago because it was a learning disorder that wasn’t very well understood. People knew about dyslexia, but they didn’t really know about nonverbal learning disorders. I felt strongly that if you’re going to talk about learning disabilities, you need to know the different categories. So you need to know, if it’s not dyslexia, what is it?
For a while, people were calling everything dyslexia — but nonverbal learning disorder isn’t anything like dyslexia. It’s a disorder that most people aren’t aware of and they’re not aware of the impact this has on the student’s academic life and on their life outside of school.
“For a while, people were calling everything dyslexia — but nonverbal learning disorder isn’t anything like dyslexia.”
Churchill: What kinds of issues do students with NVLD encounter in school?
MB: A major difficulty for students with nonverbal learning disorders would be problems in the social realm. They may have difficulty understanding body language or difficulty understanding facial expressions.
These are oftentimes children who have very good vocabularies, but they don’t always understand what the words mean. They can almost sound, sometimes, like little professors, but they don’t really have the deep knowledge of what they’re talking about. These are also students who are good with facts. They can memorize facts, but can’t integrate it into an overarching concept. In school, they can look like they’re learning a subject but they really don’t understand the concepts.
Typically, students with nonverbal learning disorder have lots of difficulties with spatial concepts and perceptual concepts. They can be in a class like geography and have no idea how to visualize distance, or how to visualize what’s a city, what’s a state, and what’s a continent. They struggle to visualize what’s a foot, what’s a yard, and what’s a half a mile.
These students are typically the reverse of a dyslexic student in that they do well in learning to read and learning to spell, but have a really hard time with math, particularly when they come to fractions, which require understanding part and whole relationships. These students might be able to add one fourth and one fourth and come up with two fourths, but if you ask them to draw one fourth on a pie chart, they may have no idea what that is.
“They can memorize facts, but can’t integrate it into an overarching concept. In school, they can look like they’re learning a subject but they really don’t understand the concepts.”
Churchill: Is there an age range when NVLD is typically diagnosed?
MB: Usually nonverbal learning disorder is not caught until the children are older, so upper elementary, middle school, and high school. Nonverbal learning disorder probably has more of an impact on daily living skills than something like dyslexia.
Teenagers with nonverbal learning disorder oftentimes find driving really difficult. They can’t read a map and they get lost easily. Even students who grew up in the same small town can’t find their way around the town, so they don’t want to drive — it makes them too anxious.
Churchill: What are some of the strategies you recommend for students with NVLD?
MB: There are entire books on this subject because there’s so much. In terms of helping them understand spatial concepts, you always have to start with your own body as a reference. If you want them to understand what a foot is, they may have to walk out and measure a foot. Then you walk out and measure three feet. If you live out in the country, it’s easy to mark out a half-mile and a mile, so you start to really build that concept.
In content area learning, you probably have to start out by teaching the concept and then teaching some of the things that are related to that concept. These are not students who will discover the concept on their own.
Churchill: Can you talk about some of the differences between NVLD and Asperger syndrome?
MB: One of the things to start with is that Asperger’s is no longer a diagnosis under the new DSM-5. Now it’s just considered an autism spectrum disorder, which I think is too bad because a lot of universities had really good programs for training Asperger’s consultants to work with public schools.
The difference, the way I think about it, is Asperger’s disorder is usually characterized by behaviors, like perseveration and the obsession with certain topics and themes. So it’s more defined by behaviors.
Nonverbal learning disorder is usually defined by a cognitive pattern where you see strengths in verbal abilities and major weaknesses in anything that can’t be verbalized, so spatial concepts and things like that. We have students with nonverbal learning disorder who can have very well developed social skills, and others who have very poor social skills — but they don’t have some of the perseveratory behavioral oddities that the Asperger’s students have. So one is more defined by behavior and the other is more defined by a cognitive pattern.
Churchill: Can you describe some of the social issues students with NVLD can have, and how these compare to the social issues associated with Asperger syndrome?
MB: A lot of the children with nonverbal learning disorder, if they’re on the mild end of it, are usually quite aware of social feelings. They might not know how to read someone, but they understand the feelings. Students with NVLD can have trouble reading your expression, but if you say to them, “I’m feeling really sad about this,” they can understand.
Asperger students oftentimes don’t have what we call theory of mind, meaning they can’t understand that your feelings are not the same as mine, and that you might see a situation much differently than I do. That means they really have trouble with empathy because they can’t take that other person’s perspective.