What is a Nonverbal Learning Disability?

Nonverbal learning difficulties, or disorder, is a state of learning in which the child experiences difficulties in understanding lessons involving nonverbal communication, usually in a school setting. Some children may suffer from a lack of social and motor skills, causing them to withdraw from their peers and become shy. Nonverbal learning disabilities are often undiagnosed or misdiagnosed as attention-deficit disorder (ADD) or attention-deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD), sometimes also for autism, as these disorders may exhibit similar symptoms.

The person who identified and named nonverbal learning difficulties as such was Dr. Byron P. Rourke, a neuropsychologist who, in 1985, defined disorder as “a dysfunction of the brain’s right hemisphere.” This part of the brain is responsible for processing “spatial, intuitive, organizational and evaluative” information considered nonverbal. Another possible cause Dr. Rourke pointed out is the impairment of the white course of the nervous system, which results in poor transmission of “messages” between the right and left hemispheres. It is uncertain whether or not heredity and genes are important factors for nonverbal learning disorder.

Contrary to popular belief, a child who suffers from nonverbal learning difficulties is often exceptionally bright, sometimes also considered “resourceful”, based on intelligent quotient (IQ) tests. He is also very articulate, expresses himself very well through verbal means, and tends to be proficient at reading. His difficulties, however, surface in understanding mathematical lessons such as word problems and geometric shapes. The child may also have a poor sense of direction, and may not do well in understanding scientific and abstract concepts; he understands them in the literal sense instead. He may also be observed to lack motor and coordination abilities, for example in sports and other physical activities, especially on the left part of his body.

Apart from motor and abstract reasoning skills, a child with nonverbal learning difficulties tends to have poor social skills and does not do well in group activities. He does not know how to process verbal signals that usually express emotions, such as a smile, a furrowed brow, or a yawn. As a result, the child will often have a hard time making and keeping friends, and will resort to seclusion and alone.

Treating a child with nonverbal learning disabilities requires a lot of “training”, both for the guardian and the child. Routines and a predictable environment will help a child stay calm and provide assurance that he can perform certain activities as well. If any changes occur, the guardian should prepare the child and talk to him beforehand. Writing down some small things, activities and other events will help a child keep and organize information in a language he understands. Treatment can also involve going through behavioral and language therapy to manage social skills.

  • Autistic children have a difficult time interpreting other people’s facial expressions.
  • Children with an undiagnosed nonverbal learning disability are often very bright, but have trouble understanding schoolwork that involves nonverbal communication.
  • Nonverbal learning difficulties are often misdiagnosed as ADHD.
  • Fine and gross motor skill falls make writing difficult for children with nonverbal learning disorder.


by Abdullah Sam
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