Non Verbal Learning Disorder/Disability (NLD)

Non Verbal Learning Disorder (NLD) was first identified in 1967 by Doris Johnson and Helmer Myklebust. The concept was rejected by mainstream psychologists and educators for almost two decades.  In 1989, Bryon Rourke wrote "Non Verbal Learning Disabilities The Syndrome and The Model" and  became one of the first psychologists whose research affirmed Johnson and Myklebust's theory that damage to the right hemisphere resulted in a specific set of learning disabilities effecting  three general areas of processing:  Spatial-Visual-Organizational, Fine/ Gross Motor and Social Learning.

Nonverbal learning disabilities:  Assessment and intervention, Helmer R. Myklebust, 1975.

Progress in Learning Disabilities, Grune & Stratton, NY, pgs. 85-121.Rourke, B. P., 1989.

Nonverbal learning disabilities: The syndrome and the model.   New York: Guilford Press

Clinically, the range of severity of NLD appears to depend on the neuro-flexibility of each child. Some children are able to master areas of disability through timely remediation. It is difficult to be certain what makes one child more likely to succeed than another but the exposure early on to appropriate interventions appears to help relearn or rewire the child's brain in such a way as to increase overall functioning. Finding interventions that appeal to a child's specific areas of interest and that strengthen their ability to socially connect and feel competent, is the key to effective treatment.

Individuals with NLD typically have exceptional verbal abilities. As young children they are sometimes labeled gifted as a result of their rote auditory memory skills, advanced reading skills and sophisticated oral vocabulary. Their area of primary disability lies in non verbal learning, such as social interactions, self help skills, generalizing information, multitasking and assimilating abstract mathematical concepts.   Anxiety and depression frequently accompany development into teenage years due to increasing frustration with the inability to match functioning with self perception.

School problems are often first identified when academic tasks move from language based to abstract/mathematical reasoning. When children are young, family and friends may suspect there is something different about an NLD child.  They are more likely to notice the awkward social and emotional struggles, the thinking in extremes and the difficulty connecting to peers.  Some NLD students also suffer from executive dysfunction which affects their ability to self regulate cognitively and emotionally. They are often so confused by non verbal social cues that relationships with peers and family can be very frustrating.

Psychological defenses tend to be primitive and may involve black and white thinking, oversimplification, minimization and denial.  Emotional growth and life experience can increase the sophistication of social functioning when family and professionals directly model and teach a different array of coping mechanisms. Children with NLD can learn to better understand the world and themselves when given the opportunity through education and treatment.  It takes time, patience and understanding to reach an NLD child.  They see the world through a different lens.

Children with NLD and other learning disabilities continue to develop cognitively, emotionally and socially  in the area of executive function well into adulthood. This is part of the concept of neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity says the brain can reorganize itself forming new connections throughout our lifespan.  Executive function takes place in the prefrontal cortex of the brain.

Executive Function is a :  "cluster of high-order capacities, which include selective attention, behavioral planning and response inhibition, and the manipulation of information in problem-solving tasks.       (Glossary Nature Publishing Group)

Some of the attributes of effective executive function skills are the ability to make reasonable decisions, plan ahead, organize thoughts, control impulses,  determine priorities and in the broadest of terms to apply common sense to most circumstances.   Deficits in executive function are a common denominator in many learning disabilities.   They also occur in NLD.

Learning Disabilities And Executive Function

Below is a list of common characteristics of NLD students created by Pamela B. Tanguay.  Pamela is a mother of a daughter who was diagnosed with NLD at the age of 9. She is an advocate for individuals with NLD and has a website devoted to NLD and related conditions. Pamela's website contains articles and information to help the NLD parent better understand how to navigate the maze of interventions as well as the emotional process of living with an NLD child.

Non Verbal Learning Disorder Common Characteristics
Academic Performance
  • WISC Verbal IQ is often higher than the Performance IQ.
  • Strong to exceptional vocabulary and more than typical verbal expression.
  • Strong to exceptional auditory rote memory skills.
  • Excellent attention to detail, but not so for the big picture.
  • The individual may be an early reader, OR may have early reading difficulties.  Common difficulty with reading comprehension beginning in the upper elementary grades, especially for novel material.
  • Difficulties in math are common, especially in the areas of word problems and abstract applications.
  • Concept formation and abstract reasoning may be significantly impaired.
  • Significant difficulty generalizing information - e. g. applying learned information to new or novel situations.
  • Generally they are auditory, unimodal learners (may not look or write while processing).

Social Interaction

  • Process at a very concrete level and interpret information quite literally.
  • Significant weakness processing nonverbal communication such as body language, facial expressions, or tone of voice.
  • Unable to intuit what is not specifically stated.
  • May present as uncooperative.
  • Tremendous difficulty with fluid or difficult social interactions.
  • Lack "street smarts" - can be incredibly naïve.


  • Appear to lack coordination - do better in individual rather than team sports.
  • Impaired fine motor skills - handwriting may be poor and/or laborious.
  • Significant problems with spatial perception are common.
  • Difficulty learning to ride a bicycle, catch and/or kick a ball, hop and/or skip.


  • Anxiety and/or depression may be quite severe, especially during adolescence.
  • Individuals tend to be withdrawn by middle school, and may actually become agoraphobic.
  • Cannot readily adapt to new situations, or changes to routine.
  • Self-esteem problems are common.  Increased incidence of suicide within the NLD population.

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