Nonverbal learning disorder

From attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) to autism, classrooms and special education programs adjust to meet the needs of students with various limitations and different abilities. Some students may be falling through the cracks because they seem so bright, yet they may also need special accommodations.

Boy frustated in school

From the time our children are born, we begin to make comparisons — whether we are conscious of it or not. Measuring your child’s growth and abilities against those of his peers or siblings helps us get a better feel for what’s “normal” and what signals may indicate that something needs attention. If you notice subtle differences in the way your child navigates the outside world and communicates with others, he could be dealing with nonverbal learning disorder (NLD). Children with NLD aren’t always identified in elementary school. What are the signs of this lesser-known disorder, and how can you help your child succeed if he has it?

Early academic success

One of the difficulties in being diagnosed with NLD at an early age is that many kids with NLD are quite bright and verbal as young children — leading people to feel that they are gifted, even if other skills seem to be lacking. They tend to have excellent verbal skills, early language acquisition and a broad vocabulary at a young age. Preschool teachers would tend to label such a child as the brightest in the class, based on language skills alone. Rote memorization skills are high, allowing the child with NLD to remember words, phrases, rules, riddles and almost anything she has heard or read. At the preschool and early elementary-school levels, memorization alone is a skill that may mask the disability.

Increasing difficulty with academics

As the child with NLD gets a bit older, academics begin to be more about applying knowledge than about memorization. The child may begin to have trouble with reading comprehension, even if she was an early reader. Math problems — especially those that are word problems involving abstract thinking — become more difficult. Applying things she has learned to new situations is quite difficult and may cause her to fall behind in school by the upper elementary grades.

“Nonverbal learning disability is really a learning disability and not a psychological disorder,” shares Dr. Kimberly Williams, a clinical psychologist.

Language skills affect emotions

Children with NLD tend to be very “black-and-white” thinkers, taking information very literally from both daily conversations and academic life. Nonverbal cues — facial expression, body language and change in tone of voice — that most of us are able to “read” in conversations with others would be lost on someone with NLD. Unable to read between the lines in social situations, many children and adults with NLD have difficulty making friends. These social difficulties often lead to depression, anxiety and low self-esteem. There is a higher rate of suicide in those diagnosed with NLD.

Physical difficulties

As bright as your child appears to be to the outside world — with her early reading ability, large vocabulary and ability to memorize almost anything — she certainly isn’t a star on the playground. Kids with NLD tend to be physically less adept than their peers. There are problems with spatial perception and personal space, which make many team sports difficult at best. Kids with NLD may have an awkward running gait and may even have trouble learning to ride a bicycle or shoot a basketball. These physical difficulties can lead to feeling isolated on the playground, at school or at the park.

What do these challenges mean?

If you are seeing signs that lead you to suspect NLD, share your concerns with your pediatrician and ask her for a referral to a therapist or psychologist who specializes in learning disorders. We spoke with Susan J. Schwartz, M.A. Ed. — a consultant learning specialist at Child Mind Institute — about how parents can best help their child move forward after a diagnosis of NLD.

“Parents should understand that there is a range of strengths and challenges in students with NLD and that the child’s profile will change as he or she grows and matures,” says Schwartz. “Initial motor weaknesses that affect many areas of early development may result in fine motor- and pencil-control difficulties later. The visual-spatial-organizational challenges affect children when they start school; when they learn to walk from the class to gym, art, lunch or music and when they need to navigate independently through the hallways.”

When you observe these behaviors in your young child, it helps to imagine how these challenges will affect him later on rather than just assuming he will “outgrow” them.

Teachers and parents are a team

Being able to work in coordination with your child’s teachers will go a long way.

“Parents and teachers should collaborate, provide consistent schedules and constructive routines and explain daily expectations,” shares Schwartz. “Being proactive is crucial. There are so many adaptations that can be made at home and at school to ensure the child’s success. Verbally explain and preview new information or situations because children with NLD do not learn by doing, nor do they learn intuitively,” she adds. “At school, minimize the number of adults who work with and interact with your child, and make sure that the child always knows who to approach for support and guidance when the child feels stressed or unsure. Finally, don’t forget to have fun with your child, and take time to encourage and explore special interests and activities together!”

By being proactive and learning as much as you can about your child’s challenges, you give him a solid foundation for success. A great resource Schwartz recommends for both parents and teachers is The Source for Nonverbal Learning Disorders by Sue Thompson (, $44).

More on learning difficulties

Learning disabilities: How to improve your child’s self-esteem
Help your child with Sensory Processing Disorder at school
Outdoor activities for kids with ADHD and autism


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