What Is a Nonverbal Learning Disability?

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  • Written By: Karize Uy
  • Edited By: Lauren Fritsky
  • Last Modified Date: 03 October 2019
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Nonverbal learning disability, or disorder, is a learning condition in which the child experiences difficulty in understanding lessons that involve nonverbal communication, usually in school settings. Some children can suffer from deficiency in social and motor skills, causing them to withdraw from their peers and become shy. Nonverbal learning disability is often undiagnosed or misdiagnosed as attention-deficit disorder (ADD) or attention-deficit-hyperactive disorder (ADHD), sometimes even for autism, as these disorders may exhibit similar symptoms.

The person who identified and named nonverbal learning disability as such was Dr. Byron P. Rourke, a neuropsychologist who, in 1985, defined the disorder as “a dysfunction of the brain’s right hemisphere.” This part of the brain is responsible for processing “spatial, intuitive, organizational and evaluative” information considered nonverbal. Another possible cause Dr. Rourke pointed out is the impairment of the white matter of the neural system, resulting in poor transmission of “messages” between the right and left hemisphere. It is not certain whether or not heredity and genes are significant factors for nonverbal learning disorder.


Contrary to popular belief, a child who suffers from nonverbal learning disability is often exceptionally bright, sometimes even considered as “gifted,” based on intelligent quotient (IQ) tests. He is also very articulate, expressing himself very well through verbal means, and tends to be skilled at reading. His difficulties, however, surface in understanding mathematical lessons such as word problems and geometric shapes. The child may also have a poor sense of direction, and does not do well in understanding scientific and abstract concepts; he instead understands them in a literal sense. He can also be observed to lack motor and coordination skills, such as in sports and other physical activities, especially on the left region of his body.

Aside from motor and abstract reasoning skills, a child with nonverbal learning disability tends to have poor social skills and does not do well in group activities. He does not know how to process nonverbal cues that usually express emotions, such as a smile, a furrowed brow, or a yawn. As a result, the child will often have a hard time making and keeping friends, and will resort to becoming withdrawn and alone.

Treating a child with nonverbal learning disability requires a lot of “training,” both for the guardian and the child. Routines and a predictable environment will help a child become at ease and give assurance that he can perform certain activities well. If any changes should happen, the guardian should prepare the child and talk to him in advance. Writing down any chores, activities, and other events will help a child retain and organize the information in a language he understands. Treatment can also involve going through behavioral and language therapies to deal with social skills.


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