Although there are many ways to classify learning disabilities (LDs), some professionals speak of language-based and non-language-based LDs. For example, most reading disabilities would come under language-based LDs, while most math LDs would come under non-language LDs. However, individuals have a combination of areas of difficulty and strength, so it is important to look at students’ learning profiles when planning instructional activities.
The term Non-verbal Learning Disabilities or Non-verbal Learning Disorder (NVLD or NLD) is used to describe a cluster of difficulties that are primarily in non-language areas. Other terms that you may see are Visual-spatial LDs or Right Hemisphere LDs (since the areas of difficulty are mostly right hemisphere functions).
Since NVLD is a term that you will see in psychological assessment reports and in the literature, it is useful to understand some of the features. NVLDs refer to problems processing visual-spatial information. Students with NVLDs typically possess verbal assets such as strong receptive language, and acquire reading skills as expected; but they may have difficulty “reading to learn”, and display persistent math problems as well as deficits in motor planning, perceptual reasoning, and verbal prosody. Again, it is important to remember that an individual student may have some, but not all, of the commonly described features.
Some commonly described features of NVLD
- auditory memory better than visual memory
- basic reading and spelling skills better than mathematics skills
- verbal expression and reasoning better than written expression
- difficulties with sense of direction, estimation of size, shape, distance, and time
- difficulties with spatial orientation, e.g., knowing how things will look when they are rotated
- visual figure-ground weakness, e.g., problems finding things on a messy desk
- problems interpreting graphs, charts, and maps
- difficulties with motor skills such as graphomotor skills (related to printing and cursive writing), physical coordination, and balance
- trouble estimating how long tasks take, managing time
- trouble seeing the “whole picture” or knowing what details are important
- trouble organizing, especially nonverbal information
- may become easily lost in an unfamiliar environment
In addition to these difficulties, some students with NVLDs may have problems with reading non-verbal cues such as body language, facial expressions and tone of voice. They may not pick up subtle social cues required to monitor their interactions in social settings. However, there are some students with other features of NVLDs who are very successful socially.
Progression of difficulties
NVLDs often go undetected in early years because reading ability tends to be regarded as the chief indicator of academic progress. However, difficulties in mechanical arithmetic may show up early.
Students will struggle increasingly as they encounter more complex requirements in reading comprehension, written expression and math, and when working with maps, charts, graphs, science concepts and geometry.
Those students who have social perception difficulties may become increasingly socially isolated when they fail to understand the increasingly complex ‘hidden’ rules of social interaction. They may be bullied, and there is a danger of them becoming depressed.
Amerongen, Margaret, Tips: The View from Within: Understanding Nonverbal Learning Disabilities, Integra tip sheet, undated.
Casey, Joseph E., (2012), A Model to Guide the Conceptualization, Assessment and Diagnosis of Nonverbal Learning Disorder, Canadian Journal of School Psychology, 27 (1), 35-57.
Mammarella, Irene Cristina et al, (2010), Spatial Working Memory and Arithmetic Deficits in Children with Nonverbal Learning Difficulties, Journal of Learning Disabilities, September/October 43 (5), 455-468.
Spreen, Otfried, (2011), Nonverbal learning disabilities: A critical review, Child Neuropsychology, 17 (5), 418-443.