What Is Nonverbal Learning Disability (NVLD)?

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Nonverbal learning disability is a neurodevelopmental condition that is characterized by difficulties with visual-spatial processing, executive functioning, mathematical concepts, fine motor skills, and social skills. It is referred to as NVLD or NLD for short.

People with nonverbal learning disabilities typically do not have difficulty in areas such as reading, decoding language, spelling, vocabulary, or factual recall; however, they may have trouble with visual, spatial, or tactile perception.

This condition typically starts to become apparent in children when they are in the fifth grade, as their schoolwork becomes less about memorizing words and facts, and more about applying theoretical concepts.

Nonverbal learning disability is not recognized as an official diagnosis; however, it is estimated that approximately 5% of people with learning difficulties have this condition. Researchers, healthcare professionals, and educational institutes are studying the condition and advocating for it to be recognized.

This article explores the symptoms, causes, and treatment of nonverbal learning disability, as well as the efforts to recognize it as an official diagnosis.

Areas of Difficulty Associated With NVLD

Children with nonverbal learning disabilities may have difficulty in some of the following areas.

Visual and Spatial Awareness

A child with nonverbal learning disability may have trouble processing visual imagery. For instance, if they are asked to copy a shape such as a square or triangle, they may draw something entirely different and disproportionate. This is because they may not be able to accurately perceive the shape, the elements that make up the shape, and the relationships between the elements.

The child may also have difficulty evaluating the visual-spatial aspects of their surroundings, making it hard for them to understand what they’re seeing and where exactly it’s located. As a result, they may be clumsy or physically awkward.

Higher-Order Comprehension

Higher-order comprehension is the skill that helps us grasp “the big picture,” by understanding the main idea, the details supporting it, and the forces working against it. 

Children with nonverbal learning disabilities may have trouble with higher-order comprehension, which can make it hard for them to understand the salient points of what they’re reading. They may also have trouble telling or writing a story effectively.

Difficulty in this area can also make note-taking hard, as children may not be able to distinguish between what information is important and what isn’t. As a result, they may write down everything the teacher is saying, write down the wrong things, or fail to write anything at all.

Mathematical Concepts

Children with nonverbal learning disabilities are good at rote learning and may therefore do well at math in the early stages. However, they may start to struggle with math as it becomes more challenging and involves recognizing patterns or applying advanced concepts.

Even if the child is dealing with a math problem they’ve tackled before, they may have trouble figuring it out if it takes a different approach or has been modified slightly.

Executive Functions

Executive functions are a set of higher-order skills that help us organize our thoughts, plan out our tasks, and figure out how to deal with problems or obstacles.

Children with nonverbal learning disabilities may have trouble with planning and organizing. For instance, they may have trouble conceiving the steps it takes to get a task done, organizing their day, or taking a step-by-step approach to solving a problem.

Social Skills

Children with nonverbal learning disabilities may struggle to read nonverbal cues of communication, such as facial expressions and body language.

Unlike other children, who automatically start to pick up on social cues, children with this condition may have difficulty reading social situations. As a result, they may not be aware of what’s going on in the interaction and may not know the appropriate behavior for the situation.

Children with this condition may therefore be more comfortable with communication modes such as text or chat than in-person communication, since they don’t involve nonverbal cues.

Symptoms of NVLD

Someone with nonverbal learning disabilities may have difficulty with the following tasks:

  • Gripping a pencil
  • Tying shoelaces
  • Using scissors
  • Throwing a ball
  • Riding a bike
  • Avoiding bumping into things
  • Recalling visual information
  • Staying focused on a task
  • Multitasking
  • Planning ahead
  • Staying organized
  • Writing essays
  • Telling stories
  • Taking notes
  • Drawing geometric shapes
  • Understanding fractions
  • Solving math problems
  • Deciphering graphs or maps
  • Interpreting social cues
  • Evaluating new circumstances
  • Reading facial expressions and body language
  • Understanding humor, idioms, and sarcasm
  • Making friends

As a result of their symptoms, children with nonverbal learning disabilities may feel isolated and marginalized, and face social barriers well into adulthood.

Causes of NVLD

Nonverbal learning disability is classified as a neurodevelopmental condition that is believed to stem from a dysfunction in the right hemisphere of the brain. Abnormalities in the white matter of the brain can hamper the transmission of neurological signals in this region, resulting in the symptoms of this condition.

Nonverbal learning disability is therefore characterized by difficulty with right-brain tasks and relative ease with left-brain tasks.

Treatment of NVLD

People with nonverbal learning disabilities may benefit from the following types of treatment:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy, to improve their confidence and social skills
  • Occupational therapy, to help them adapt better at school and at home
  • Physical therapy, to improve coordination and fine motor skills
  • Educational interventions, to help them cope at school

Recognizing NVLD as an Official Diagnosis

Nonverbal learning disability is not recognized as an official diagnosis by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) or the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic manual, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).

In fact, children who display symptoms of this condition are typically diagnosed with other conditions such as autism, anxiety, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

However, healthcare professionals, organizations, and education institutes who feel that these children’s symptoms are not being adequately represented by these diagnoses are researching nonverbal learning disability, working toward developing standardized diagnostic criteria, and advocating for it to be recognized as a learning disorder.

In addition to helping define the condition and its symptoms, recognizing nonverbal learning disability as a health condition will also help individuals who are living with it get access to appropriate treatment, improve healthcare providers’ awareness of the condition, make patients eligible for insurance reimbursements, and help children get the educational support they need.

Columbia University’s Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry notes that the “NVLD profile” of symptoms is already gaining wide recognition among educators and neuropsychologists.

A Word From Verywell

While NVLD is not recognized as an official diagnosis, it includes a set of symptoms that are not adequately represented by other learning disorders or health conditions. It is a condition that can make it difficult for children to learn, express themselves, grasp concepts, and interact with others.

If you suspect you or your child might have this condition, it may be helpful to see a mental healthcare provider who is aware of it and has worked with others who have it, in order to get the right treatment and support.

8 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  3. Child Mind Institute. What is non-verbal learning disorder?

  4. Learning Disabilities Association of America. Nonverbal learning disabilities.

  5. Columbia University Department of Psychiatry. Inclusion of NVLD in future DSMs.

  6. NVLD Project. What is non-verbal learning disability?

  7. Winston Preparatory School. What is non-verbal learning disorder?

  8. NVLD Project. NVLD: What is it and why is it not in the DSM?

By Sanjana Gupta
Sanjana is a health writer and editor. Her work spans various health-related topics, including mental health, fitness, nutrition, and wellness.