Children with non-verbal learning disorder (NLD) have deficits in their ability to understand interrelational concepts, abstracts ideas, and patterns. Unlike other learning disorders, NLD does not impact a child’s ability to process language or read; instead, it affects social interactions, executive function, organization, and problem solving.
According to the Child Mind Institute, there are five major areas that are impacted by NLD. Firstly, visual and spatial awareness, the ability to understand visual imagery and physical position, is an area of weakness for those with NLD. For instance, a child with NLD cannot copy a cube exactly, since they do no perceive the shape accurately. Regarding interrelational skills, lacking spatial awareness causes children with NLD to be physically awkward as they may stand too close to others and be uncoordinated.
Another aspect of NLD is higher-order comprehension, which is the ability to understand the big picture of something and connect that idea to smaller details. This weakness makes it difficult for children with NLD to take notes in school because they tend to write everything being said, rather than identifying important information.
Additionally, math concepts are challenging for students with NLD, especially word problems that require understanding beyond memorization of data. The importance of recognizing concepts and patterns in math makes such a topic difficult for those with NLD.
In everyday life, social communication deficits greatly impact children with NLD. As the name implies, children with non-verbal learning disorders struggle in understanding emotion and meaning through body language, facial expressions, and tones. As a result, it’s difficult for children with NLD to build friendships as they do not read situations and social cues the same as their peers. Additionally, in social situations it is common for children with NLD to share socially inappropriate information, be unaware of people’s reactions, and change subjects abruptly in conversion.
A crucial area in which children with NLD struggle is in executive function skills, which are skills we use to think, organize, plan, problem solve, and carry out actions. This applies to everyday life, such as completing homework: students struggle with organizing their assignment, planning how they will complete them, and then actually going through and doing their work.
Oftentimes children with NLD are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder or ADHD due to the similarity of symptoms. However, the process for diagnosing NLD takes into account issues that are not seen in other disorders, such as higher-order comprehension, and visual and spatial relations.
While there is no single test for NLD, there are multiple steps parents can take to get a diagnosis. Firstly, parents can get a medical exam with their child’s primary doctor, as well as a referral to a mental health proffesional once medical causes are ruled out. Mental health professionals will use a variety of tests in areas including, speech and language skills, visual-spatial organization, fine motor (writing, drawing, etc) and gross motor skills (throwing, catching, etc).
With these tests, the specialist will observe the child’s strengths and weaknesses common to NLD: some strengths include high verbal scores, and average to above average intelligence, while some weaknesses include social skills, visualizing information, and coordination.
There are many other conditions that are often diagnosed alongside NLD, but as a separate disorder. This includes language disorders, like expressive language disorder and receptive language disorder, as well as Aspeger’s syndrome. Commonly children with NLD are misdiagnosed with ADHD as many of the symptoms are similar, but ADHD has a greater foundation in the inability to concentrate and control impulsiveness.
Some therapies that are effective for children with NLD symptoms are social skill groups, which help with developing interpersonal communication abilities, occupational therapy, which improves motor skills and coordination, and cognitive therapy, to cope with associated mental health issues, like anxiety.
An important aspect of life for children with NLD is their education and how their learning disabilities are accommodated in the classroom. Although NLD is not a disability recognized in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), if parents and the school believes that a child needs special education services, they can be evaluated in order to get an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or a 504 plan. With these programs, schools will provide children with accommodations and modifications in the child’s education plan. In doing so, children’s teachers will better understand their strengths and weaknesses, and increase their students’ ability to succeed in the classroom.
In all, non-verbal learning disorder can affect many areas of life among the children who have its symptoms. With more research and a better understanding of the disorder, we can imporve education plans for these children and provide better environments for social and learning development.