A learning disability is a neurodevelopmental disorder that interferes with the person’s ability to acquire or use basic academic skills (e.g., reading, writing, or mathematics).
When we talk about learning disabilities (LD), what mostly comes to mind is dyslexia. LD involves challenges in using language and verbal expressions. It might surprise you to hear that there’s another type of LD, this one involving challenges with non-verbal behaviors and skills.
LDs can be grouped into different types, and these types have distinct yet overlapping underlying causes.
Types of learning disabilities
Learning disabilities is an umbrella term that includes various subtypes. The most common types of learning disabilities include:
- Dyslexia: Also called reading disability, it affects the ability to read and comprehend written text. It also interferes with processing language-based tasks.
- Dysgraphia: This specific learning disability affects the ability to write and fine motor skills.
- Dyscalculia: It’s a learning disability that affects the ability to understand and use numbers and mathematical operations.
- Oral/written language disorder and specific reading comprehension deficit: This one affects the ability to understand spoken and written language. It might also affect the ability to express thoughts and feeling through language.
- Non-verbal learning disability: This specific learning disability involves challenges with social skills, organization, executive functioning, and visual-spatial ability.
The main focus of our article is on non-verbal learning disabilities (NVLD) because parents often don’t know about these conditions. Many children get misdiagnosed or parents remain confused about their child’s condition because they have little or no information about NVLD.
What is a non-verbal learning disability (NVLD)?
Researchers have been studying non-verbal learning disabilities (NVLD) for decades. The history of research on NVLD can be traced back to 1967, when Doris Johnson and Helmer Myklebust discussed non-verbal types of learning disabilities.
Children with NVLD often look clumsy, lack social skills, and face problems with visual-spatial abilities (more on this below). They usually have a good vocabulary but struggle with non-verbal skills, specifically non-verbal social cues and visual-spatial ability.
Prevalence of NVLD
In a cross-sectional study of North American children and adolescents, the criteria for NVLD included clinical records of deficits in visual-spatial ability and significant impairment in at least 2 out of the 4 domains of mathematical calculations, social skills, visual executive functioning, and fine motor skills.
The findings of the study indicated that the prevalence of NVLD is 3% to 4 %. When applied to a US population under 18 years of age, 2.2 million to 2.9 million children and adolescent were estimated to have NVLD.
What causes NVLD?
NVLD is a neurodevelopmental disorder. Research based on fMRI and brain imaging shows that although social skill deficits exhibited by children with ASD (autism spectrum disorder) and NVLD are similar, there are distinct underlying neurological issues. The findings of this study indicate that social processing deficits in children with NVLD are derived from connectivity issues in the salience network of the brain.
Another research was conducted on the morphological differences in corpus callosum in children aged between 8 to 18. Those with NVLD were compared to children with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and high functioning autism. The results showed that children with NVLD have significantly smaller splenia compared to the 2 above-mentioned groups of children. These findings suggest that NVLD has underlying neurobiological causes.
The difference between NVLD, ADHD, and ASD
As children with NVLD appear clumsy, overly talkative, and inattentive, they’re sometimes mistakenly thought to have ADHD. Although there are some overlapping symptoms, the causes, neurological basis, and management plans are different for the 2 conditions.
Due to their lack of appropriate social skills, children and adolescents with NVLD can also be incorrectly believed to have ASD. These 2 groups of children might look similar in terms of having poor social communication abilities and weak pragmatic skills, but children with NVLD don’t have repetitive behavior, which is common in ASD.
Non-verbal learning disorder symptoms
NVLD is not included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM 5) at present, but researchers have been working to develop consistent diagnostic criteria for it.
Most commonly, children and adolescents with NVLD are reported to have the following signs and symptoms:
1. Poor social skills
Children and adolescents with NVLD struggle to understand non-verbal cues, body language, and facial expressions. Research conducted on children 9-18 years indicates that those with NVLD have significant deficits in interpreting adult facial expressions. They might also seem too simple, naïve, or overly trusting.
Children with NVLD might fail to respect people’s private space and may stand too close to others. They can face difficulty in making and sustaining friendships and might seem excessively talkative. They ask too many questions, and it can feel like they talk without thinking.
Children with NVLD find it hard to adjust to a new environment and new people. They feel more comfortable in a routine schedule. Changes in their social environment can overwhelm them.
2. Poor visual-spatial ability
Research on diagnostic criteria suggests that the most important deficit area in children with NVLD is visual-spatial intelligence. These children have poor visual-spatial memory, so they can’t easily memorize or understand routes to common destinations, e.g., the market, the school, or the park.
Children with NVLD can have directional confusion, that is, differentiating right from left and following maps. They might need forever to make sense of a location map. Getting familiar with different places in a building can take some serious effort on their part.
Young children can have difficulty in completing simple puzzles and following patterns of blocks or beads. Tying laces or braiding hair can be too challenging for them. According to a research study, in severe cases, the visual perceptual deficit might even interfere with finding an object in a given space.
Difficulty with visual-spatial ability can interfere with correctly estimating depth or the distance of things. Therefore, children and adolescents with NVLD might often fall or stumble over things. They lack eye-hand, two-hand, and eye-foot coordination. It can also make cycling, swimming, driving, or playing some sports difficult.
3. Poor fine motor skills
NVLD can also pose difficulties in mastering fine motor skills. Children with NVLD can have poor handwriting and problems with catching objects, using scissors, cutting, and pasting.
4. Challenges with mathematical calculations
Adolescents and children with NVLD might know the numbers and basic mathematical operations, but they struggle with more complicated mathematical processes.
Such kids tend to find it hard to create mental images; thus, mental math becomes difficult for them.
5. Struggle with reading comprehension
Children with NVLD usually develop good reading skills. Their basic reading skills are intact, and they might even read very fluently. Their major struggle is with understanding what is being read. As the reading difficulty level increases over time, their challenges with reading comprehension become more evident.
These children only focus on the literal meaning of the text. They fail to understand sarcastic, symbolic, or complicated content.
Sometimes, the child might seem to know the meaning of different words used in the text but fail to tell what the text is actually about. They focus so much on details that they might miss out on the big picture. For example, if they’re reading a passage about an animal cell, they might be able to tell what cytoplasm, nucleus, and cell membrane are. Still, they might entirely fail to grasp that this passage is about an animal cell.
Diagnosis of non-verbal learning disability
Usually, children with NVLD go undetected in the early years of their life. As academic requirements become more challenging, children are expected to engage in more abstract and complicated mental tasks. This is when the symptoms get noticed. According to research conducted in Australia, almost 85% of NVLD cases are diagnosed in secondary school, when the curriculum becomes more challenging and complicated.
NVLD is not included in DSM, so chances are that a child might be considered to have ADHD or ASD. Only a trained professional such as a pediatric neurologist, a pediatric psychiatrist, or a clinical psychologist can assess the child and make a formal diagnosis.
The findings of another study indicate that children with NVLD usually exhibit typical physical development in early childhood. Parents start to notice or suspect some difference when their child reaches the age of 2 or 3.
Screening and early identification can help children get access to early intervention facilities.
Treatment of non-verbal learning disability
Children and adolescents with non-verbal learning disabilities usually don’t require any medication unless they have some other medical condition. They usually respond well to interventions planned around their deficits or problems.
- Social skills training: This can help them learn how to interact with others. initiate and sustain communication, and interpret non-verbal communication, e.g., facial expressions and body language. Speech therapists can help with developing these communication skills.
- Occupational therapy: It can help a great deal in improving fine motor skills and coordination. It also facilitates the learning of life care and independent living skills, e.g., tying shoes and buttoning shirts. Sensory integration therapy can help kids to improve their proprioception (the body’s ability to sense movement, location, and position), which, in turn, improves balance and visual-spatial ability.
- Pediatric clinical psychologist: This specialist can help a child improve their executive functioning or ability to organize their higher-order functions. Such experts can also assist children in learning strategies to improve their reading comprehension.
Helping a child with NVLD as a parent
Let me share a few practical strategies that you can follow as the parent of a child with non-verbal learning disabilities.
1. Get audiobooks
Sometimes, children with NVLD find it easier to focus on and understand audiobooks compared to printed ones. You can get audio copies of the books or can record books in your own voice.
Allow your child to read and then listen to the content. This will help them understand the content better.
2. Summary writing
Children with NVLD tend to focus more on details and fail to concentrate on the bigger picture.
You can help your kid improve their reading comprehension by making them practice reading the content and writing a summary of it.
3. Role play
You can act out stories as a role-play activity with your child. When they play the roles of different characters, they learn to greet, communicate, and socialize with others.
Instead of a story, you can also take real-life situations, e.g., you and your kid in a restaurant. You can reverse the roles, having your child play the role of mom and you becoming the kid.
Role reversal helps children and adolescents look at the situation from another perspective, thus improving social skills and also increasing empathy.
4. Get them a daily planner
The use of a daily planner can help children with organizing their activities and schedules.
5. Use teaching aids and videos
You can use teaching aids (e.g., abacus, pegs, etc.) and videos to explain complicated mathematical concepts. Once the child understands the basic process behind a mathematical operation, mastering it becomes easier.
Non-verbal learning disabilities can be confusing for parents and teachers, so it’s important to get help from a trained professional. A correct diagnosis paves the way for devising and implementing a suitable intervention plan. Educate yourself about NVLD because once your mind receives the right information, your eyes begin to see the possibilities, opportunities, and the brighter side of things.