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.

Impact Update – Winter 2015

The mission of NCLD is to improve the lives of the 1 in 5 individuals nationwide with learning and attention issues. Below are highlights of our accomplishments in the fourth quarter of 2014.

Empowering Parents

  • We’ve expanded the reach of Understood through a national advertising campaign:
    • The Ad Council has helped secure donated placement of ads across the country on TV, radio and print media—including full-page ads in the New York Times!
    • We also secured several promotional video billboards in the middle of Times Square to help share this incredible resource to more parents of kids with learning and attention issues.
  • Enhanced connectivity on Understood.org: A new section called Parents Like Me gives parents the opportunity to trade tips and advice with other parents who share their interests and concerns.
  • The redesigned NCLD.org makes it even easier to find information about all of NCLD’s programs, the latest reports and studies, scholarship opportunities and more!

Advocating for Equal Rights and Opportunities

  • NCLD secured $2.5 million in Congress’s 2015 budget to be used for a National Technical Assistance Center. This money will fund an online resource center that will provide information to students with disabilities and their families to assist with the transition to higher education.
  • We received a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to study and make recommendations on how systems of personalized learning best serve and incorporate students with disabilities.

Transforming Our Public Schools for All Students

  • We launched the RTI-based SLD Identification Toolkit on RTINetwork.org. The Toolkit was developed in partnership with the National Association of School Psychologists, the National Association of State Directors of Special Education and the Council of Administrators of Special Education. It offers evidence-based practice for identifying students as eligible for special education in the Specific Learning Disabilities category using Response to Intervention as the foundation.

Ensuring Successful Futures for Young People

  • NCLD’s Pete & Carrie Rozelle Award is our annual honor given to a public and a private school that demonstrate excellence in serving all students, including those with learning and attention issues. The 2014 winners were P.S. 200 Benson Elementary School (Brooklyn, NY) and Eagle Hill School (Greenwich, CT).
  • We completed the research phase of our Student Voices project surveying more than 1,200 young adults to gain a first-hand perspective about their journey and discover how we can support their needs as they transition from high school to college or the workplace. Look for the results on NCLD.org.

Looking Ahead
We’re committed to providing the resources and services that our community needs. Here are some of our exciting upcoming programs and goals for the first quarter of 2015.
Providing More Resources for Parents

  • We’re expanding the reach of the Understood campaign beyond traditional media (TV, print, radio) to be shown in movie theatres and lobbies across the country.
  • We’re excited to announce a new partnership with Understood, ABC / Disney and First Book. Understood will partner on the Magic of Storytelling campaign to help ensure that all children have access to books and parents have the resources to foster a passion for reading with their kids.

Increasing our Advocacy Impact

  • We’ll release recommendations that we’ve developed jointly with the Learning Disabilities Association (LDA) for states that have third grade reading laws. Using Understood as a platform we’ll share our recommendations in the form of a “best practices” document for policymakers and an infographic for parents.

Providing Educators With Tools for Success

  • We’ll continue our partnerships with the Barnstable Public Schools and the Massachusetts Department of Education in Massachusetts to help fully implement a Multi-Tier System of Supports through NCLD’s Schools That Work project funded by The Peter and Elizabeth C. Tower Foundation. We’ll also add another school district in Massachusetts to partner with for year two of the project.

Serving Young Adults Beyond High School

  • We’re reviewing over 400 applications from high school students across the country to select the Anne Ford & Allegra Ford Thomas Scholarship Award winners for 2015. The scholarships are awarded annually to two graduating high school seniors with documented learning disabilities to support their pursuit of a four-year, two-year, or vocational post-secondary education.

RESIZE_Kaila Hatton (2014 AFT Scholar)-029

“The hardest part of my journey with LD hasn’t been the tests or even the grades. It’s been the low expectations that people have for kids who learn differently. For young kids, it’s having to constantly deal with the feeling that you’re disappointing someone because you don’t fit the mold of the ideal student…the truth is that this struggle has made me stronger. I’m ready to take on anything!”
– Kaila Hatton, 2014 Allegra Ford Thomas Scholar