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.