What Is Nonverbal Learning Disorder?

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People with nonverbal learning disorder (NVLD) have strong verbal and reading skills. They struggle, however, with nonverbal skills in areas like sports, math, and handwriting. They may also seem spacey and unfocused. There is no cure for NVLD, but there are many treatments and therapies that can help.

This article looks at nonverbal learning disorder, its characteristics, and its management.

Child struggling with math

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Overview

Nonverbal learning disorder (NVLD) is a set of specific challenges. They are slightly different from (but very similar to) attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism spectrum disorder (ASD) without intellectual impairment. People with NVLD have challenges with:

  • Math
  • Spatial reasoning
  • Fine motor skills
  • Social communication

People with NVLD usually have average or above-average intelligence. They also have strong verbal and reading skills.

Because it is hard to identify NVLD, it is often misdiagnosed. Medications used for other disorders won't help treat NVLD. Therapies and accommodations, however, can make a big difference.

Characteristics of Nonverbal Learning Disorder

NVLD is a set of challenges that, together, make up a learning disorder. It is estimated that 3% to 4% of people have NVLD.

People with NVLD have strong speech and reading skills but may have difficulties with:

  • Math: They may be able to add and subtract but have trouble with shapes and geometry.
  • Visual and spatial reasoning: They can't, for example, imagine an object and turn it around in their minds.
  • Fine motor skills: They may be able to throw a ball but have trouble using scissors or writing with a pencil.
  • Motor planning: An example of motor planning is the ability to place yourself in the right location to catch a ball.
  • Big picture thinking: They see the details but don't understand what they add up to.
  • Identifying patterns: They may have a hard time seeing patterns, such as a sequence of numbers or a series of shapes.
  • Social communication: They have no trouble talking or writing, but they may have a hard time understanding how others think or feel. This is because they don't notice social patterns.
  • Executive functioning: They have a hard time managing time and planning the steps required to meet a goal.

NVLD is recognized as a learning disorder by psychologists and schools. However, it is not listed in the "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders" (DSM-5), the manual used to diagnose learning disorders.

What Makes NLVD Unique?

NLVD looks very much like several other developmental and learning disorders. This makes it tricky to identify. Because there are no official diagnostic rules, there is no clear way to distinguish it from those other disorders.

Researchers are trying to determine whether NVLD is a discrete learning disorder that should have its own set of diagnostic criteria. The American Psychiatric Association describes an "NVLD profile” but not a diagnosable disorder.

NLVD vs. Autism

Children with NLVD have very similar symptoms to those with ASD without intellectual impairment (what was once diagnosed as Asperger syndrome). Children with this type of autism are verbal and of at least average intelligence, but have symptoms that interfere with their daily lives. Both autism and NLVD may include:

  • Difficulty with understanding non-verbal communication cues
  • Difficulty with making/keeping friends and working collaboratively
  • Physical difficulties with motor skills and motor planning, such as figuring out where a ball will be or how to navigate obstacles
  • Lack of focus or attention
  • Problems with executive functioning (planning) skills

In addition to these symptoms, however, children with autism also struggle with:

  • Speech and language issues: Children with NVLD are usually very good with speech and language as well as reading.
  • Repetitive movements: Unlike children with autism, those with NVLD don't typically engage in repetitive body movements such as flapping, rocking, or flicking.
  • Sensory challenges: These can make it difficult to function well in very bright, loud, or crowded spaces or when there are strong smells present. Sensory challenges are not part of NVLD.

NLVD vs. ADHD

NLVD has many symptoms in common with ADHD, which can make it very difficult to decide which disorder to diagnose. Not only are the symptoms similar, but so are the outcomes—poor grades, behavioral issues, and lack of social connections. Here are just a few of the shared symptoms:

  • Excessive talking and interrupting
  • Problems with focus and follow-through
  • Difficulty with executive functioning and self-organization
  • Impulsivity and behavioral challenges
  • Difficulty with social relationships and collaboration
  • Challenges with problem-solving

Unlike children with ADHD, however, children with NLVD:

  • Tend to have specific academic challenges in the areas of math and few or none in speech, reading, or writing
  • Are unlikely to respond positively to medications that successfully treat ADHD
  • Are more likely than children with ADHD to have problems with motor skills and motor planning

Managing NLVD

There are no medicines to treat NLVD, and there is no cure. There are, however, a range of therapies and accommodations that can make it much easier to live with and even thrive with NLVD. It is important to remember that medications that treat similar symptoms in ADHD are unlikely to have any impact if your child has NLVD.

Accommodations

Accommodations are changes in the environment that can help a person with particular challenges succeed along with their peers. Accommodations for a person with low vision, for example, might include providing them with spoken versions of textbooks.

Accommodations for NLVD in the classroom or workplace might be similar to those provided to people with ADHD or ASD without intellectual impairment.

  • Time-management tools such as digital timers and alarms, visual timers, and timeline tools for organizing projects or daily schedules
  • Verbal and written instructions for anything from cubby organization to appropriate lunchroom behavior
  • Reduction of distractions in the classroom, such as fewer wall decorations, fewer options for learning activities, etc.
  • Math supports such as worksheets with only one or two problems, consistent representation of equations, examples for how to solve problems, and (when appropriate) hands-on and/or digital manipulatives
  • Social activity supports including social stories (short stories with real-life photos designed to teach social skills and appropriate behaviors), lunch bunch programs, or other opportunities to develop social skills in a safe environment
  • Extra time to complete exams or homework in math and related disciplines

Therapies

Depending on an individual child's needs, some of the following in-school or private therapies may be helpful:

Summary

If your child has strong speech and reading abilities but struggles with math, sports, and social engagement, there is a real chance they could have nonverbal learning disorder (NVLD). While there are no medications to treat NVLD, there are accommodations and therapies that can help your child cope with and even thrive with NVLD.

A Word From Verywell

NLVD, like other learning disabilities, does not disappear with age. But when a child with NLVD has the tools and support they need, they can learn to cope with and overcome some of their challenges.

If you suspect your child may have NLVD, it's important to connect with your pediatrician to set up an evaluation. Meanwhile, it may be helpful to work with your child's teacher to ensure your child has the support they need to manage schoolwork. This can help them avoid the kinds of frustrations that can lead to behavioral challenges.

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6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  6. The NVLD Project. Is it NVLD or ADHD? Why the confusion?