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Non-Verbal Learning Disabilities

By: Lucy Debenham BA (hons) - Updated: 25 Jun 2024 | comments*Discuss
Non-verbal Learning Disabilities

Non-Verbal Learning Disability (NVLD) is the name for a syndrome that describes and summarises a collective number of deficiencies that affect emotional, social and cognitive functions. This can include affecting visual-spatial skills and awareness, motor skills, the development of organisational skills, the forming of social relationships, the ability to conceptually reason or rationalise and ability to make inferences.

It is thought that Non-Verbal Learning Disabilities are caused by dysfunction in the right hemisphere of the brain through injury or developmental problems.

Understanding The Effects Of Non-Verbal Learning Disabilities

The term ‘non-verbal’ learning disability may be a little misleading, in that it does not literally and categorically describe a disability in speech or language tasks only. The ability to process verbal information and speak is controlled by the left hemisphere of the brain. However, people with a non-verbal learning disability may experience difficulty with language skills and communication.

This is because language and speech require abilities that a person with Non-Verbal Learning Disabilities may experience difficulty with; namely organisation and comprehension. However, on the face of it, many people with Non-Verbal Learning Disabilities have excellent verbal skills, with children often excelling in comparison to their peers. But their ability to really comprehend narrative and the jist of a story or conversation is impaired.

This can manifest itself by the person perhaps not complying with an otherwise inherent social etiquette; not taking turns in conversations, talking at length and making inconsequential contributions. Therefore it is not surprising to learn that it is believed that some people have been misdiagnosed with similar disorders such as Dyspraxia and Asperger’s Syndrome.

Knock-On Effects

The impairment of visuo-spatial skills has a considerable knock-on effect in terms of social interaction and sense of self. A person with a Non-Verbal Learning Disability will have difficulty understanding and deciphering facial expressions, tone of voice and gesticulations.

The processing a range of expressions and meanings to build an overall picture is therefore hindered. There is also often an impairment when giving body language and expressions a verbal label, as well as understanding subtext, metaphors and abstract thinking, such as ‘as bright as a button’ or ‘in the doghouse’. Humour is often misunderstood or not comprehended, and sometimes a person with Non-Verbal Learning Disability will laugh during inappropriate moments, as they do not always understand the context or relevance of emotions.

This misunderstanding of ‘emotional semantics’ can lead to all sorts of problems, often resulting in difficulty in building meaningful relationships or perceiving risky situations. As they cannot always interact with their peers, children and sometimes adults with Non-Verbal Learning Disabilities they may resort to other means of gaining attention, sometimes resorting to disruptive behaviour, or alternatively becoming withdrawn.

Visuo-Spatial learning is an intrinsic part of developing a perception of the way in which the world is organised, and a dysfunction here can lead to a distinct lack of development in ‘self’, leading to future struggles, such as psychotic disorders, thought disorder and body image problems. One major issue is that a person with Non-Verbal Learning Disabilities may not have an awareness of the their own difficulties.

Non-Verbal Learning Disabilities And Schooling

As one might expect, a lack of awareness of this disability can make any treatment or management of the disorder difficult. Carers, parents or guardians do, however, play a significant role in developing cognitive skills. This is because a child with Non-Verbal Learning Disability is more likely to explore and interact within an environment if they have developed a strong attachment to their carer. This in turn can help with social functioning and understanding concepts such as personal space and recognising emotional cues.

In terms of learning disabilities in an academic environment, problems tend to stem not necessarily from lack of intellectual development, but rather emotional intelligence. Problems with distractibility and concentration, and giving up easily are all common behaviours associated with NVLD. They may also have problem with organisational tasks, typically in subjects such as mathematics and geography, and telling the time.

There are a number of ways to aid learning and motivation for people with NVLD. Firstly, there should always be supervision during peer interaction to help understanding, adjustments and adaptations within social situations. Kinaesthetic sports may improve motor skills and aid any problems relating to body image. It is also beneficial to utilise their excelled verbal skills by asking them to use verbal interaction whenever possible; for instance, verbal feedback and description of social situations.

There may also be emphasis on building social skills and social etiquette. This can be done in a therapeutic capacity, at school or in the home. Reducing distractions and keeping tasks and instructions simple will also avoid confusion.

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My son was diagnosed with NVLD 2 years ago, he is 15 and also has ADHD. It took 10 years of assessment for his ADHD diagnoses. This was largely due to the fact that he is an identical twin, and his brother has no issues. It was only taken seriously when they looked back on his pre birth development and realised that he was the doner of twin to twin transfusion, they were 3 months premature and he had two spontaneous bleeds on brain. I have fought all of his life, as I knew he needed support, but no-one would listen to me. Now, I just don't know where to go for help...he is so angry all of the time and just feels completely alien at school. I have had to provide his SENCO with information about NVLD as they hadn't even heard of it! Please help.
KN - 25-Jun-24 @ 3:10 AM
I have been struggling with some of the above since secondary school (I'm now early 60s). I was way ahead in verbal and reading skills, had an excellent memory and was rated above average, but just couldn't fathom out complex problems, strategies and outcomes (including games) or how people quickly grasped certain concepts that I found impossible until I'd talked through them. The social cues are not an issue, but analogue clocks are... and tricky maths might as well be an alien language. I thought I was dyscalculic, and I'm might be as well, but this fits more closely... I can be clumsy, though. Remarkably, ChatGPT helped me find NVLD when I told it the issues I was facing... It's challenging at times as an adult, but there are occasions - when enough information is provided - I get a much more nuanced and dimensioned idea of a problem and can move quickly to a successful solution that peers have not seen. In my opinion, it's about having luxury of additional time and information needed to 'feel' your way to an outcome. And feeling confident/able to asking for this, with the support of good people, otherwise others will just assume you're like them and it's easy to despair as one gets left behind.
Kev - 17-Nov-23 @ 3:23 PM
Hi Lucy, I appreciate that this is a very old post but there is still much confusion regarding this little know. Of diagnosis. I am formally diagnosed as autistic and dyspraxic but score 54 out of 60 for a screen for NVLD that I found in ADDitide magazine. I have the hall marks of NVLD such as abysmal Visio spatial skills and my Verbal IQ being much stronger than my performance IQ both of which have been pointed out to me by professionals. I therefore suspect I may have both autism and NVLD. Is it possible to have both conditions? Can you please advise how I may get an NHS assessment for NVLD by cognitive neuropsychologist with expertise in the condition as an adult. Thanks for reading and for any suggestions given, Camellia
Camellia - 4-Mar-23 @ 9:02 PM
cloe1 - Your Question:
Im 22 and ive got nvld and was recently told that camhs should have refered me to adult social care but when I have talked to them im getting the feeling they dont know what my condition is because when I spoke to physical disabilities team there saying they dont help with the problems accoiated with my condition and im wondering what service I need to be asking for

Our Response:
Have you tried any of the organisations that deal with conditions related to yours, maybe aspergers syndrome etc. Try Citizens' Advice, your GP practice or your local council to see if they have a information on local organisations.
AboutLearningDisabilities - 27-Feb-18 @ 1:50 PM
im 22 and ive got nvld and was recently told that camhs should have refered me to adult social care but when i have talked to them im getting the feeling they dont know what my condition is because when i spoke to physical disabilities team there saying they dont help with the problems accoiatedwith my condition and im wondering what service i need to be asking for
cloe1 - 24-Feb-18 @ 6:25 PM
yeah i can relate to most of the comments posted. i always struggled with the above in school and my social etiquette was never really that good. making sense of such 'simple' tasks, was demoralising confusing and even made me afraid at times as i was singled out amongst the crowd and even making myself heard.i am naturally quiet and never really posed any viable autistic symptons. ive had to learn and adjust to alot of situtions in my life and was cuelly subjected to ridicule from a young age so i cant understand why doctors wouldn't have this information to children who have obvious learning difficulties such as these. what develops later often results in further conditional explanations and refusal to provide the correct support and guidance through a continous lack of the above and ive been trying for a job for a long time with no hope at all. i put myself on continuous learning study courses which help for so long.
gabby - 23-Sep-12 @ 9:20 AM
My daughter who is rising 11 was diagnosed with NVLD in March. Since then I have been trying to find a support group and would really like to talk to other parents with children with this condition. The local authority have never heard of this condition. I feel angry and disappointed as we have been left out in the cold with no offer of support.
Mumbie - 16-Aug-12 @ 8:56 AM
This information is very useful to me,I mention to a friend about my stepson and he mention the webb site to me,he is 19yrs and have attend one of the best private school from my country but fail all his exam ,even to fill a form for a job is a problem for him ,I either have to help him or his Dad,he cannot read or write properly.All the money we spend for the past 12 years he has nothing to show for it,wherewe came from we are not aware of this condition,we just thought that he was lazy or has no interest in learning and has no sense of responsibility,I just realized we have been wrong,I am working for the British Army and they came to settle with me here since 2010,I been trying to encourage him to go to college to go and learn some skill but he refuses,I can see his reason nowand I don't know what to do to help him.
Roo - 10-Jul-12 @ 8:48 PM
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