The Lesser Known Learning Disability

When the average person thinks of a learning disability (LD), oftentimes, dyslexia, dyscalculia, or even ADHD will be top of mind, however, there’s a lesser-known disorder called a nonverbal learning disability (NVLD or NLD) that is less discussed, and there’s a reason for that. ADDitude magazine describes NVLD as “the most overlooked, misunderstood, and under-diagnosed learning disability.” Individuals with NVLD often have trouble getting a diagnosis in a medical setting or being identified from an early age. There are several factors that contribute to this difficulty, but overall, this specific learning disability (SLD) is simply hard to diagnose.

Clinicians have historically lumped individuals with NVLD with those with Asperger’s disorder (AD) or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and although similarities between the symptoms exist, clearer distinctions in identification can really make a difference for people who struggle with NVLD. As many individuals with learning and attention issues could attest, the true identification or diagnosis of one’s LD is a critical step towards gaining confidence in one’s learning ability.

So, what is a nonverbal learning disability (NVLD)? The sections below go into more detail.

Individuals with Nonverbal Learning Disabilities are Highly Verbal

Contrary to the prefix “Non” in Nonverbal, individuals with NVLD are indeed highly verbal. In fact, most people with NVLD have strong verbal capabilities. The National Center for Learning Disabilities’ (NCLD) Senior Advisor and LD expert, Dr. Sheldon H. Horowitz, says individuals with NVLD “often have extremely powerful verbal and reasoning skills,” however, they are ”weak in nonverbal areas.” A key struggle is in the area of reading non-verbal cues, which can be critical as nonverbal language accounts for the majority of how we communicate.

Other characteristics of NVLD show up in the academic, physical, and social/emotional areas. 

Characteristics Individuals with NVLD may Struggle with:

Academic & Physical

  • Verbal expression and reasoning
  • Reading and comprehension
  • Vocabulary
  • Auditory memory
  • Attention to detail
  • Math 
  • Handwriting
  • Coordination
  • Spatial perception
  • Directions
  • Estimations of size, weight, shape, or distance

Social / Emotional

  • Social skills / fluid social interaction 
  • Reading facial expressions
  • Changes to routine
  • Inattention or active in childhood
  • Self esteem

The Social / Emotional Challenge

As nonverbal cues account for 93% of communication, and verbal, 7%, a tricky challenge for folks with NVLD shows up in the area of social/emotional interaction. Tone, facial expression, and body language are often very hard to read or never truly deciphered. Even a tiny hint at sarcasm, for example, can completely go over one’s head. So what might be obvious to most, might be entirely missed by some.

This means there’s often a heavy focus on words and literal meanings, so much of the context behind tone and body language will prove difficult for individuals with this LD.

In 2020, the comedian, Chris Rock, opened up about his own struggles, having been diagnosed with the disability (NVLD) as an adult. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Rock said, “all I understand are the words,” sharing how he “often takes things too literally,” he then goes on to explain, “by the way, all those things are really great for writing jokes — they’re just not great for one on one relationships.”

As tone is such an important vehicle in the delivery of language, these subtleties in everyday communication add to the anxiety that individuals with NVLD have as they navigate the world. However, with an identification and/or diagnosis, there’s a bit of light at the end of the tunnel. 

Identifying NVLD

As Rock shared in an Extra interview “once you’re diagnosed, it makes everything easier.”

Even though individuals with NVLD are diagnosed now more than ever, this learning difficulty remains notoriously under the radar. Clinicians often find an overlap between the symptoms of Asperger’s disorder (AD) and NVLD, and although similarities between both LDs exist, a clear identification or diagnosis is the best path forward. 

Since 2013, The NVLD Project has been working hard to raise awareness for the disorder. In an interview with the Today Show, the founder of the NVLD project, Laura Lemle said, “if you know one person with NVLD, you know one person with NVLD.”  

The organization continues to push to get NVLD listed in the diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (DSM); a move that would help improve more accurate diagnoses for doctors/clinicians.

The Overlooked History of Women with Learning Disabilities

As we recognize and celebrate the incredible achievements women have made throughout our nation’s history, one component that is glaringly overlooked are the challenges related to learning disabilities and attention issues among the women that have made a significant impact in our society.

Over the years, we have learned about the inspiring women who have faced adversity and made history despite great opposition. However, their disabilities and possibly the hardships resulting from those disabilities have been left out of many stories that we have become familiar with throughout our lives. The narrow lens through which these stories have been told is forever incomplete if we do not create space for the truth to be unveiled.

This Women’s History Month, we would like to shed light on a few influential women who made history despite having a learning disability or attention issue. We recognize that these are only a handful of the many women whose stories are untold or still being written.

Whoopi Goldberg was the first Black woman to host the Academy Awards ceremony in 1994. She is also the only Black woman to achieve EGOT, having won all four major awards for professional entertainers—Emmy (Television), Grammy (Music), Oscar (Film), and Tony (Theater). As an adult, Goldberg was diagnosed with dyslexia.

Simone Biles is an American gymnastics champion, having made history in 2016 for becoming the first woman to win four consecutive national championships in over 42 years as well as the first American gymnast to earn 14 World Championships medals—making her the most decorated woman gymnast in American history. Biles has shared her personal struggles with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) via Twitter after her confidential medical records were shared publicly in 2016.

Cher is known for being an American singer and songwriter. In 2011, she made history as the first artist to score a number one song on the Billboard chart in each of the last six decades. After her son, Chaz, was diagnosed with dyslexia, she recognized her own similarities and was diagnosed with both dyslexia and dyscalculia.

Amanda Gorman made history as the youngest inaugural poet at the 46th presidential inauguration, being the first poet to share at a Super Bowl and being named the nation’s first-ever National Youth Poet Laureate. Gorman has been diagnosed with an auditory processing disorder and a speech impediment.

We are grateful for each of these women and their contributions toward our society. As we look towards the future, let’s encourage and empower more women to share their experiences with learning disabilities and attention issues. If you have a history maker that you want us to highlight, please share their impactful story with us.

June 2020 Policy News Round Up

This June, Congress tackled reopening schools safely as advocates push for more funding and safer schools. See how NCLD worked on behalf of people with disabilities this month. 

NCLD and 13 Partner Organizations Release Recommendations for How States and Districts Can Prioritize Students Hit Hardest by Education Disruptions

NCLD worked with partners to develop a set of recommendations to guide how funding can prioritize equity in the state and district response to COVID-19. We agreed that:

  • “Our most vulnerable students—like those from low-income backgrounds, students experiencing homelessness, immigrant students without comprehensive access to our social safety net, and all students who have been historically underserved—have been hit first and hardest by the disruptions. Without an intense and intentional focus on equity, they also will be the last to recover academically, socially, and emotionally.” 
  • “As resources grow scarce, and likely become scarcer, we must target funds and supports to our most vulnerable students. We must design emergency response and recovery programs that prioritize these students from the beginning, rather than include them as an afterthought.”

Read the full set of recommendations here.

NEW: NCLD Parent Advocacy Toolkit to Help Students With Learning and Attention Issues During COVID-19

Based on the recommendations (above) developed by NCLD and partners, NCLD created a toolkit to help parents advocate for equity as school districts develop reopening plans for the 2020-2021 school year. This toolkit can help advocates speak up for students with learning and attention issues during and after the COVID-19 pandemic. Using these recommendations, advocates can encourage decision makers in their state and school district to use funding and resources in ways that will address the needs of students with disabilities. Download the full toolkit here.  

How the Federal Government is Responding to the the School Funding Crisis

The Council of Chief State School Officers, an organization of public officials who head departments of elementary and secondary education in the states, sent a letter to the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee estimating how much reopening schools would cost.

The organization estimates that states will need between $158.1 billion and $244.6 billion in total additional funding to reopen school buildings safely and serve all students in the next academic year. While the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill this month that would provide $58 billion in funding for public schools, the Senate has yet to take action. Although, the Senate Republicans are warming to the idea of providing additional funding. 

U.S. House of Representatives Committee Discusses Reopening Schools 

The House Committee on Education and Labor held a hearing to discuss COVID-19 reopening procedures and their relationship to racial inequalities. Testimonies, especially that of former Secretary of Education Dr. John B. King, Jr. (now President and CEO of the Education Trust), highlighted policy options that could prevent reentry procedures from exacerbating existing educational inequities. Dr. King stressed that “students are going to come back to school having lost as much as 70% of the ground of the school year in math; 30% or more in reading, and the way that we address that is to provide additional instructional support, particularly critical for students with disabilities and English learners who have been without services, in many cases, since March.”

In addition, Dr. King and others pushed the Committee to consider requiring states, as a condition for receiving new federal stimulus dollars, to protect their highest need districts from cuts, and requiring districts to protect their highest need schools from cuts. Many of these districts have a high percentage of students of color and have been historically underfunded due to a variety of reasons including systemic racism. Watch the full recording of the hearing here

Growing Number of School Districts Do Away with Police Officers in Schools

In light of recent events including the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the subsequent protests, many schools have decided to cancel contracts with School Resource Officers (SROs). The National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO), estimates that between 14,000 and 20,000 SROs are currently in service nationwide. However, the presence of SROs is associated with more suspensions and expulsions (which we know from existing CRDC data disproportionately affect students with disabilities and students of color). Research also suggests that the presence of SROs might increase the chances that students are arrested for low-level offenses such as disorderly conduct. 

Recently, NCLD joined with other organizations in support of Civil Rights Principles for

Safe, Healthy, and Inclusive School Climates. These principles emphasize the use of supportive discipline practices and call for a prohibition on using federal funds on school police or surveillance. Read the full set of principles here.