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June 2017 Subscribe to the Struggling Learner newsletter >>

Children with Nonverbal Learning Disabilities

Joyce Blankenship Joyce Blankenship

By Joyce Blankenship
HSLDA Special Needs Consultant

“[O]ur children need us to serve as guide and interpreter so they can make sense of the world around them. . . . We cannot allow them to stumble along lost, misinterpreting social cues, and missing the deeper meaning of thought and language.”
—Marilyn Martin, Helping Children with Nonverbal Learning Disabilities to Flourish, 148.

In previous articles, we’ve discussed how homeschooling allows parents to provide structures that help meet the needs of children with various special needs. This newsletter will focus on a particular disability that has only recently been the focus of increased study.

Many of you are familiar with verbal learning disabilities involving language, such as dyslexia, which can affect an individual’s ability to read, spell or express his thoughts. But few of us are familiar with the term nonverbal learning disability, a little-known and often unrecognized learning difficulty which affects five to ten percent of all individuals who have a specific learning disorder.

Eliminating the Confusion

Nonverbal learning disability (NLD) can be a confusing term. For example, despite what the phrase may imply, children with NLD are not unable to speak. In fact, a child with NLD can often be unusually fluent and capable with language. But these children experience great difficulty when they try to process and understand visual, or nonverbal, information. Recognizing familiar faces, finding their way around the home or neighborhood, learning geometry, and understanding body language and facial expressions are all areas of intense struggle.

As learning specialist Marilyn Martin insightfully explains, the child with NLD is “someone who delights in words, but despite adequate vision, struggles with making sense of the myriad of phenomena we see with our eyes” (Martin, 18).

Not Dyslexia

NLD is sometimes referred to as a “right-hemisphere learning disorder” because neurologists theorize that NLD stems from neurological deficits on the right side of the brain. The right hemisphere of the brain is considered responsible for processing nonverbal information which includes visual-spatial, intuitive, conceptual, and holistic thinking.

On the other hand, dyslexia is thought to be caused by dysfunction of the brain’s left hemisphere, which is responsible for processing language, logic and analytical thinking. NLD and dyslexia can be described as reverse learning problems because individuals with NLD and dyslexia show an opposite pattern of strengths and weaknesses.

Strength in Language

Children with NLD have many strengths. They often learn to speak early and eloquently. They have rich vocabularies and are often precocious early readers. They can memorize verbal material with ease, are good spellers, and because of their keen auditory perception and attention to detail, find retelling a story they have heard a piece of cake. These are children who love language; they enjoy having conversations, hearing stories, and playing rhyming games.

Because children with NLD exhibit these strengths, their parents may believe that they are gifted, particularly since the first three years of elementary school typically emphasize tasks that require strong verbal skills, rote memory and good decoding abilities. However, these verbal strengths can often cover the confusion that children with NLD feel in their physical environment. Plagued with visual-spatial difficulties, children with NLD experience much anxiety from their inability to find their way around, to keep track of their things, or to recognize important people and to draw conclusions based on what they see.

Difficulties with handwriting and arithmetic computation begin to show up by the elementary school years, and by middle school—when the curriculum becomes more complex—they can no longer rely solely on their excellent rote memory to successfully complete their schoolwork.

According to Caroline Miller of the Childmind Institute, “Kids who have NLD have no trouble decoding language or memorizing information, but they do have trouble understanding information—recognizing relationships, concepts, ideas, [and] patterns and applying them to new situations.”

Struggles with Coordination

Additionally, individuals with NLD have difficulties with motor coordination and struggle to balance, jump, skip, play sports, ride a bike and drive a car. Due to their poor spatial awareness, they are sometimes awkward and bump into things. However, these kids can learn to perform simple motor tasks through repetition if they are given very specific verbal instruction. Through this method, a young child with NLD can learn how to form letters of the alphabet, button his shirt and turn on the kitchen faucet.

Novelty is Stressful

Many of us jump at the idea of visiting a new place or doing something that we have never done before. But children with NLD find novel experiences stressful, and painful to handle. They thrive under a highly structured environment where they know what to expect, including a daily schedule that varies as little as possible. Because of their struggle with novelty, it is challenging for these children to be mentally flexible, as they think in concrete, logical ways.

Language is both a strength and a weakness for children with NLD. Although they love language and often have an exceptional vocabulary, they interpret language literally, and struggle with using and understanding language appropriately in new situations.

Social Isolation

Children with NLD often suffer social isolation during their growing-up years. Even as young as preschool-age, rules for group play are often communicated nonverbally through gestures and facial expressions. Nonverbal communication will either be missed or misinterpreted by children with NLD.

Adolescents with NLD struggle with social tasks, such as taking part in a conversation. Their black-and-white understanding of language makes it difficult to grasp humor. The complex interpersonal skills needed to make and maintain friends are often beyond the capabilities of many children with NLD.

Marilyn Martin believes that children with NLD need to receive direct instruction in how to function socially. These children need richly structured social experiences carefully monitored by adults, including playtimes in which children are coached in understanding the rules of play, an atmosphere that encourages cooperation and downplays competition, and opportunities to socialize in small groups with adult interaction.

The Gift of an Understanding Parent

As the parent of a child with NLD, Martin brings NLD to life with anecdotal notes and observations from her daughter Sara’s journey from childhood to adulthood. Throughout her book, she emphasizes the fact that words are essential for children with NLD. “Throughout Sara’s childhood, I learned about the power of words to guide her through space,” she writes. “Words became her seeing-eye dog” (Martin, 19).

Martin shares an experience from Sara’s early years: “By the time Sara turned two, I had learned through trial and error which techniques would successfully encourage her to embrace the world more readily. Language and rehearsal became the key. Each time she was faced with a new experience, I tried to imagine all the components of that experience, and to identify any potentially disturbing elements. I found that if I could relay to her what to expect in words before she actually had an experience, she could better tolerate any situation. As the years passed, I became more adept at crawling into her mind and seeing the world from her point of view” (Martin, 56).

As homeschooling parents, we have the opportunity to be that guide to children with NLD. We know our children best. Since we daily experience much of life together, we can become keen observers of our children’s behavior, so that we can recognize when they need our help and the help of others.

We can learn how to use words explicitly to provide the type of information that our children need to interpret the world around them. Then we can discover ways to give them opportunities to practice different skills and tasks so they can fix this information into memory. Be encouraged! A committed parent gives a child with NLD the best chance to face an often-confusing world from the safe haven of a loving home.

Teaching and Accommodation Tips

  • Use papers with limited visual distractions
  • Create a written schedule or chart to help the child accomplish task/organize steps to an assignment
  • Allow for extra time on written assignments and projects with multi-steps
  • Require less written output and/or use oral narration, dictation, or speech/text software
  • Seek assistance with occupational therapy, physical therapy, and/or vision therapy to help address fine motor, gross motor, and visual-spatial skills
  • Explicitly teach and explain (front-loading instruction) new vocabulary, idioms, figurative language, and clichés, as students with NLD tend to be very literal

References

Marilyn Martin, Helping Children with Nonverbal Learning Disabilities to Flourish

Jerome Rosner, Helping Children Overcome Learning Difficulties

Sue Thompson, The Source for Nonverbal Learning Disorders

Caroline Miller, “What Is Non-Verbal Learning Disorder?” (Childmind Institute)

Erica Patino, “Understanding Nonverbal Learning Disabilities” (Understood.org)

Nonverbal Learning Disabilities: An Overview” (Smart Kids with Learning Disabilities)


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