Nonverbal learning disorder affects a person’s understanding of nonverbal information, such as concepts and patterns. It can result in academic, social, and spatial challenges.

Intelligence is both verbal and nonverbal. However, many miss out on nonverbal aspects that limit a child’s ability to learn, understand, and communicate because they are not as obvious.

In contrast with rote learning or memorization through repetition, nonverbal learning is the ability to process and understand information other than verbal and written forms.

Nonverbal learning involves understanding ideas, patterns, concepts, and relationships and applying them to new situations.

Doctors often do not spot nonverbal learning disorder (NVLD) as children with NVLD have strong vocabularies, reading, and rote language skills.

This article discusses nonverbal learning disorders, their signs, possible causes, diagnosis, and treatment.

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NVLD is a neurodevelopmental disorder that impacts a person’s ability to learn from nonverbal information.

Children with the condition often have advanced verbal skills, reading recognition, and rote language abilities but have impaired spatial reasoning, motor skills, and social skills. They also have problems with executive functions and math calculations.

They retain linear, detail-oriented, automatic processing but have difficulties understanding themes and the “big picture.”

NVLD is relatively rare, comprising 1.7% of all learning disabilities. It is easy to miss, and 85% of those with the condition get diagnosed in secondary school when academic learning becomes more complex.

NVLD varies from person to person, and one can present with a combination of symptoms.

They may present with particular strengths that might mask underlying problems:

  • excellent memory for the things they hear
  • good reading skills
  • excellent verbal reasoning and expression
  • strong vocabulary

They commonly report problems with:

  • spatial awareness, like bumping into objects
  • motor skills and coordination, like throwing a ball and running
  • fine motor skills, including handwriting
  • executive function, including:
    • planning
    • organization
    • problem-solving
  • multitasking
  • attention and focus
  • recalling visual information
  • picking up social cues
  • interpreting social patterns and performing appropriate behaviors during social interactions
  • understanding and adapting to new and novel situations
  • understanding humor, sarcasm, and idioms
  • advanced math skills like fractions and word problems
  • understanding visual concepts like:
    • charts
    • graphs
    • maps
  • essay writing

The exact cause of NVLD is unknown, but experts suggest that disease or early damage affecting the right hemisphere may lead to NVLD.

The right hemisphere plays an important role in spatial processing and interpreting visual information. It also simultaneously gathers and integrates information from a variety of sensory sources.

Learn more about the left and right brain here.

A 2016 study found that individuals with NVLD have a high interhemispheric asymmetry.

The following can also put a person at risk of developing NVLD:

  • maternal drinking or smoking
  • illness during pregnancy
  • prolonged labor
  • cord coil
  • premature birth
  • low birth weight
  • serious infections

Learn more about the average baby weight by month.

NVLD may resemble other neurodevelopmental disorders like autism spectrum disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or other learning disorders.

NVLD is not an official diagnosis. It is not part of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM V-TR), the manual mental health professionals use to diagnose conditions like learning disorders and ADHD.

Despite this, educational settings and neuropsychologists recognize an NVLD profile and are pushing for the inclusion of NVLD as a diagnosis in future DSMs.

An expert like a neuropsychologist can help identify NVLD by conducting a thorough medical and developmental history and assessing the child’s skills.

They may also conduct academic and cognitive tests to help distinguish NVLD from other related disorders.

Currently, NVLD has no cure and does not have a standard treatment. There are no medical treatments for the condition. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) medications tend to have little impact on NVLD.

However, therapies and other interventions tailored to the child’s needs can help, including the following:

Physical activities

Individuals with NVLD often do not perform well in sports.

Anecdotal evidence suggests it is crucial to find physical activities to participate in for their health and well-being. These include:

  • swimming
  • track and field
  • martial arts

Participating in these sports may also help improve their motor planning, strength, and coordination.

Teachers can also make accommodations or modifications for NVLD students to make physical education more enjoyable.


Anecdotal evidence suggests possible therapies that may help symptoms, include:

  • physical therapy to address:
    • strength
    • gross motor skills
    • motor planning
    • balance
    • coordination
  • occupational therapy to improve fine motor skills and address sensory issues with sensory integration problems like sensory overload
  • social skills training to teach appropriate responses to social situations, like greeting someone and joining a conversation
  • executive function training to develop:
    • problem-solving
    • attention
    • organization
    • planning
    • other deficient skills
  • cognitive therapy to deal with anxiety, self-esteem, and self-confidence issues common with persons with NVLD


Below are some of the classroom accommodations that can help a child with NVLD cope:

  • give extra time when teaching a new concept
  • provide ample warning before transitioning to another activity
  • make situations more predictable
  • follow a predictable routine or post an outline of the day’s schedule
  • provide clear, explicit verbal instructions
  • simplify visual materials
  • provide visual aids
  • place in a seat with fewer visual distractions
  • provide movement breaks
  • give explicit instructions or hand-over-hand assistance when teaching motor skills like handwriting
  • explore different ways to learn a new topic
  • read out math problems
  • type assignments or use a voice recognition tool to replace handwriting
  • provide simple graphic organizers like concept maps or outlines
  • use graph paper for math lessons

NVLD is an uncommon and often misdiagnosed type of learning disability. It affects a person’s ability to understand nonverbal information, leading to poor social skills and spatial and motor problems.

NVLD has no cure, and there are no medical treatments for it. Therapies and accommodations can help with a person’s learning disorder and help them overcome difficulties.

Parents who suspect their child has NVLD or think their child received a wrong diagnosis should talk with their pediatrician or set up an appointment with an expert, like a neuropsychologist, for an evaluation.