Children with nonverbal learning disabilities (NVLD) often have excellent vocabulary and read very well. Common NVLD symptoms include difficulties with spatial relationships and social communication.

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Learning disabilities are relatively common, affecting 8–10% of children in the United States. However, most well-known learning disabilities are language-based, such as dyslexia.

NVLD is a less common learning disability that can be easy to miss because children with NVLD have advanced verbal and written skills.

They do not have problems with rote learning or memorization. NVLD can manifest differently in every child, but they typically have difficulty with nonverbal skills such as:

  • executive function
  • motor skills
  • visual-spatial skills
  • social communication

This article explores the common symptoms of NVLD and its treatments.

Experts believe that NVLD is due to abnormalities of the brain’s right hemisphere, which plays a crucial role in spatial processing and interpreting visual information.

Learn more about the left and right sides of the brain here.

As a result, children with NVLD have difficulty with spatial relationships. This can cause problems with understanding how they relate to objects in space and how things or parts relate to each other.

They may avoid blocks, puzzles, and other activities that require understanding how pieces fit into the bigger whole. They may also have difficulty identifying geometric shapes.

Problems with gross and fine motor skills are common in NVLD. A child may appear clumsy and physically awkward and may often bump into other people or objects.

Additionally, they may present difficulties in other areas that relate to deficits in visual perception, including:

  • left-right orientation
  • visual memory
  • visual-motor integration
  • visual form constancy — gestalt
  • visual-sequential memory

Their visual-spatial difficulties can lead to problems manipulating objects in space and thinking of objects and positions in abstract terms. This causes challenges in:

  • cutting with scissors
  • using utensils
  • writing
  • copying and drawing shapes
  • building with blocks and other construction toys
  • understanding maps and charts
  • keeping columns straight in math problems
  • legibility — following lines and margins, using proper spacing between words and letters

Children with NVLD are usually interested in forming social relationships but find it difficult to relate to peers and form friendships.

They have excellent rote language skills and usually learn to read earlier than their peers. However, they find it hard to use pragmatic or social language skills in daily interaction with others.

This means they have difficulty recognizing and interpreting people’s emotions and grasping subtle social cues in body language, facial expressions, and tone nuances.

They may:

  • have problems following the flow of conversation
  • stand too close to people
  • abruptly change the topic of the conversation
  • take things literally and misunderstand jokes and sarcasm

Higher order comprehension is the ability to analyze, interpret, synthesize, and evaluate information to create meaning and understanding from it.

Children with NVLD have no problem with linear thought but have an impaired ability to understand the big picture or the underlying theme. They think in concrete, literal terms and find it hard to understand abstract concepts, including idioms and metaphors.

They have difficulty with reading comprehension. Children with NVLD have problems with inferential comprehension, or understanding meaning that is not explicit in the text they have read.

To compensate, they pay attention to the details and may memorize them, but they do not understand the importance of those details and miss the big picture.

Many experts miss NVLD early because children may compensate with their great rote learning capacities. However, children may show academic problems in secondary school as learning becomes more complex.

Complex verbal language based on inferential learning and nonverbal processes replace rote learning in secondary school, causing academic issues.

Visual-spatial and coordination problems make learning math, writing, and telling time difficult.

They may do well in math during their early years by relying on memorization to answer questions. However, as they get older, they may find advanced math problems hard because these problems rely on understanding patterns and concepts.

When they reach adulthood, individuals with NVLD may find it challenging to integrate information in lecture form and to prioritize which information to write down.

Executive functions are higher order cognitive skills that allow a person to perform goal-direction actions. These brain functions enable a person to:

  • handle multiple tasks
  • prioritize tasks
  • plan and organize
  • focus attention
  • remember instructions
  • apply different rules in different settings

Children with NVLD have poor executive functions and may find it hard to attend to and focus on tasks, plan, and organize. They also have difficulties understanding cause-and-effect relationships and problem-solving. This may affect their ability to break down tasks into smaller parts or determine the next steps toward a task or goal.

New and novel situations can be challenging to understand, causing transition issues.

There is no standard treatment for NVLD. While NVLD may show similar symptoms to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), ADHD medications will not improve NVLD symptoms.

A range of therapies and accommodations can help address the child’s individual needs to help them cope with their condition.

Special education and tutoring

Some children may benefit from receiving special education or tutoring in some or all academic subjects, including math, physical education (PE), and reading.

Occupational therapy

Occupational therapists (OTs) can help improve the following:

  • visual-spatial and visual integration problems
  • handwriting
  • gross and fine motor skills
  • attention and other executive function skills
  • behavior problems

OTs may also provide sensory integration to help children with NVLD who may have sensory processing difficulties.

Physical therapy

Physical therapists can help address problems with motor planning, coordination, and balance.

Social skills training

Social skills training can help the child learn how to respond and behave in social situations. This can help improve their self-confidence and self-esteem and help them establish peer relationships.

Accommodations and strategies

Schools and family members may adopt certain accommodations and strategies to help children with NVLD perform better in their daily activities, particularly in subjects they have the most difficulty with, such as math and PE.

NVLD is a neurological disorder that affects an individual’s ability to process nonverbal information. This can lead to various symptoms affecting their academic, social, and emotional development.

While symptoms vary from child to child, children with NVLD commonly have problems with executive function, communication, visual-spatial skills, and motor skills.

There is no standard treatment for NVLD, but a range of therapies and accommodations can help address the individual needs of a child with NVLD and improve their ability to participate in daily activities.