What is Nonverbal Learning Disorder?

wiseGEEK Writer

Nonverbal learning disorder (NLD) is often a catchall phrase used to connect a variety of learning difficulties children have. Nonverbal learning disorder is on the autism scale, although these children and adults may not suffer from autism or Asperger’s. With autism, communication is often stunted and speech may be significantly delayed. In contrast, though the term nonverbal learning disorder suggests otherwise, NLD kids are very verbal.

Children with nonverbal learning disorders often end up feeling isolated.
Children with nonverbal learning disorders often end up feeling isolated.

There are several ways to describe the characteristics of nonverbal learning disorder. Not all children have all characteristics, and they may exhibit some characteristics in minor degrees. However, it can be said of most children with NLD that their exceptional verbal skills often confuses teachers, who may assess a child with nonverbal learning disorder as lazy or unmotivated when it comes to producing written work.

Fine and gross motor skill impairment makes writing difficult for children with nonverbal learning disorder.
Fine and gross motor skill impairment makes writing difficult for children with nonverbal learning disorder.

Children with nonverbal learning disorder may be able to mask some of the aspects of the condition with excellent long-term memory skills. However, a degree of both fine and gross motor skill impairment often makes writing very difficult. In the third or fourth grade, when writing assignments become longer, usually the child with NLD can no longer hide their disability. When NLD is not diagnosed, social stigma and angry words by the teacher can make school an especially difficult place to be.

When NLD is suspected, schools are good at helping to point out characteristics that may indicate NLD. Only a neuropsychologist can diagnose NLD, and unfortunately, most counseling services required to assess NLD are not covered by insurance plans. However, parents looking for reasons why their child or children may not be doing well in school might look to the following to determine whether NLD should be suspected.

Academically, children with nonverbal learning disorder may exhibit:

  • Difficulty completing any nonverbal assignments.
  • Difficulty with assignments requiring short-term memory.
  • Challenges related to math computations.
  • Severe dysgraphia causing writing to be delayed or labored.
  • Difficulty understanding written instructions.
  • Frustration and age-inappropriate emotional outbursts in response to academic matters.
  • Organizational difficulty and inability to stay focused.

Socially, children with nonverbal learning disorder may exhibit:

  • Extremely literal interpretations of other's speech, and inability to understand humor or sarcasm.
  • Inappropriate trust in strangers.
  • Challenges in relating to peers.
  • An extreme interpretation of what is fair.
  • Misunderstanding of nonverbal language such as gestures and facial expression.
  • Misreading of normal conversation cues.

Physically, children with nonverbal learning disorder may show:

  • Delays in both fine and gross motor skills.
  • Lack of understanding between visual and spatial relationships.
  • Tendency toward sedentary activities.

When misunderstood, the child with nonverbal learning disorder faces a very rough path that often results in isolation. NLD children have a greater risk of becoming suicidal as teenagers and adults because they are so frequently cut-off from peers, teachers and sometimes parents as well. Modifications allowing the child to work at a slower rate, complete some assignments verbally, and giving the child clear, strictly verbal instructions can increase student success.

Nonverbal learning disorder does not have one specific cause, but is clearly attributed to right brain development or deficits. Early injury to the brain might result in NLD, but most children with NLD have no history of brain injury. In some way, the right brain is failing to function as normal, resulting in some or all of the above traits. Treatment must focus on adaptation of the school, parents and teachers to the child, as the child cannot really adapt him or herself.

With early intervention, these children can be successful students, often enjoying greatest success in math and sciences. For parents, the task of parenting the NLD child can be quite challenging, but with diligence and patience, the end result will be a child who functions well socially and academically.

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Discussion Comments


Cafe41 - I know that the asperger’s disorder is difficult to understand because they child is usually very bright and often gifted but does will have a behavior disorder that will not allow him to make social connections with other children.

They don’t process humor well and do not read the social cues of others at all. This type of disorder can really develop a sense of loneliness in the child because most people do not understand the disorder and children will often reject the child because they are different.

This is the most difficult aspect of having a learning disabled child. I think that if you go to support groups and find likeminded people who may have children with the same disorder it will help you cope and allow you to understand that you are not alone.


Sunshine31 - Those are great suggestions. I wanted to add that I have a friend whose child was diagnosed within the Autism spectrum disorder and he attends a regular public school but does have a special education teacher assigned to him for remedial study in reading.

He has an auditory processing disorder that does not allow him to distinguish between the various phonetic sounds.

Learning disabilities in children is challenging but if a parent takes quick action that child will grow up and have a normal experience in school with some minor adjustments.


Children that are learning disabled usually receive support from the public school system. Depending on the degree of disability a child may even be included in a mainstream classroom and offered a pull out program for part of the day in order for them to receive the attention that they need.

Most schools have speech therapists, and occupational therapists available to help the child.

The occupational therapist will help the child develop their fine and gross motor skills so that they can function in a classroom. Parents can opt for additional therapy outside of the classroom for a child that has this form of nonverbal learning disability.

There are also programs like, “Handwriting without Tears” that helps children with their fine motor skills. The program was developed by an occupational therapist and can be used in a traditional and homeschool setting.

A child can also develop their gross motor skills by participating in a sport. There are many soccer leagues available that will allow a child the ability to develop their gross motor skills and make some friends as well.

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