Nonverbal Learning Disability: How To Recognize
It and Minimize Its Effects. ERIC Digest.
by Foss, Jean M.
Laura doesn't like school because the other children don't want to socialize
with her. She doesn't enjoy lunch anymore because she has no one to sit
with, and now that she's going on 9, her academic work is not as good as
it used to be. She has trouble with fractions and reading comprehension.
Laura's teacher has tried to talk with Laura, but Laura's response is
a monologue of details with no point or purpose. She tries to help the
girl with reading, but although Laura understands the words, she doesn't
seem to comprehend the meaning of what she's read. Problems like these
are common for children with nonverbal learning disability (NLD), who often
experience social rejection as well as academic difficulty because of the
symptoms of their disability.
People with NLD have difficulty processing nonverbal, nonlinguistic
information, yet they may be very good at processing verbal information.
They often fail to monitor the reactions of a listener. Frequently, they
are excessively verbal and expressive. They depend on verbal input, verbal
mediation, and verbal self-direction in order to function. They may talk
a great deal, yet use words in a narrow, rigid way. Other behaviors affecting
communication and social interactions include interrupting people, perhaps
by speaking out of turn or by moving back and forth between people engaged
in conversation, standing too close, or touching too much. Consequently,
other people may choose not to interact with them, may avoid them, or may
even ostracize them.
Individuals of all ages may exhibit characteristics of NLD. The reactions
of others tend to leave them feeling isolated, lonely, and sad. They usually
want to learn appropriate social behaviors, and they generally respond
positively to instruction that leads to improved social behavior. This
digest provides an overview of NLD and principles for designing and implementing
instructional interventions to address its effects.
PERFORMANCE PATTERNS IN ASSESSMENT
The consequences of NLD for learning, life, and work cause concerned
parents and teachers to seek a psychological, psychoeducational, or neuropsychological
evaluation in order to understand the nature of the difficulties and possible
remedies. Assessments usually reveal a pattern of strengths in verbal tasks
and weaknesses in visual, spatial, and other nonverbal tasks. For example,
on the Wechsler scale, the verbal IQ tends to be significantly higher than
the performance IQ. Verbal abstract reasoning as measured by the Similarities
subscale of the Wechsler is often a relative strength, while nonverbal
reasoning as measured by Block Design is often weak, as are Object Assembly,
Picture Arrangement, and Coding.
Achievement tests that measure oral reading, word identification, word
decoding, and rote spelling yield relatively higher scores than measures
of reading comprehension. In mathematics, computation is often stronger
than conceptual understanding and applications. Individuals with NLD tend
to focus on details rather than on the larger picture. Therefore, they
may have great difficulty setting priorities, separating the main idea
from details, developing outlines, taking notes, and organizing paragraphs
based on topic sentences. Mathematics concepts based on part-whole relationships,
such as fractions, decimals, and percentages, tend to be problematic. Because
of difficulties perceiving spatial relationships, individuals with NLD
may have trouble copying spatial designs and drawing these from memory.
The inability to separate the essentials from the details also affects
interpersonal and social communications, both receptive and expressive.
For example, people with NLD might not be able to select and attend to
the important points of a conversation, or they may ramble, providing a
myriad of details without making clear points.
IMPROVING UNDERSTANDING AND PERFORMANCE
Effective educational interventions begin by addressing organizational
difficulties, working with part-whole relationships, and working toward
integrating verbal and nonverbal processes. Interventions use verbal strength
to analyze and mediate information (e.g., by describing a scene or situation
to oneself), and self-talk to provide direction for completing tasks (e.g.,
by sequencing the steps to a task and saying each step to oneself). Effective
interventions include modifying academic and social environments and direct
skills instruction. Direct instruction must include a clear explanation
of the contexts in which the skill can be applied.
In the academic environment, it is important to address the student's
difficulty in prioritizing tasks and organizing the steps necessary to
accomplish those tasks. A student who is overwhelmed may become unable
to function and thus unable to complete the task.
Modifications that contribute to a supportive academic environment for
the person with NLD include:
* Ensuring that all the student's teachers know that the student has
NLD and understand its implications.
* Establishing performance expectations based on observation and knowledge
of what the student is able to complete or produce, given the nature of
the tasks and the time available.
* Providing structure and directions about priorities for completing
* Arranging with other teachers to stagger the demands for products
(papers, projects, tests, etc.), so that they are not all due at the same
Modifications that facilitate socialization include the following:
* Being sensitive to situations that have high potential for the student
to behave inappropriately and intervening to avoid behavior that might
lead to criticism, teasing, or social ostracism.
* Engaging the student in a collaboration in which the teacher or parent
signals when the student is making a social error and the student agrees
to immediately stop the behavior.
* Arranging structured social activities for young children (through
elementary school); coaching the child in how to participate; and signaling
the child discreetly if he behaves in a manner that turns others away.
PROVIDING DIRECT INSTRUCTION
Students with NLD generally respond to direct instruction and guided
practice. Perception of spatial relationships, ability to copy and draw
geometric forms and designs, handwriting, reading comprehension, mathematics
concepts and skills, and social perception and communication skills can
be improved by explicit instruction.
This instruction, modified for the nature of the task or skill, incorporates
the following underlying principles:
* Be clear and direct in addressing the difficulty.
* Gain a commitment from the learner to collaborate to improve the weakness.
* Begin the work with what is most familiar and simple- the more novel
or complex, the more difficult the task.
* Rely heavily on the student's verbal and analytic strengths.
* Model verbal mediation of nonverbal information while teaching the
learner how to use this strength. For example, use words to describe and
analyze a scene or situation.
* Provide specific sequenced verbal instructions, teaching the learner
to verbally self-direct and eventually to internalize this process.
* Provide instruction to directly associate and integrate verbal labels
and description with concrete objects, actions, and experiences.
* Encourage the student to use multisensory integration, both receptively
and expressively (read it, see it, hear it, touch it, say it, write it,
* Teach in a sequential, step-by-step fashion.
* Identify opportunities to generalize newly learned skills to other
situations and to practice in those situations.
DEVELOPING SOCIAL COMPETENCE
The interpersonal and social aspects of NLD have great significance
for a student's life. The individual who does not attend to or accurately
interpret the nonverbal communication of others cannot receive a clear
message. Our concept of self is shaped in large measure by the reflection
of how others view us. The person who has NLD, then, may not receive feedback
from others and may suffer from a less clear concept of self. The diminished
ability to engage with others greatly limits the possibility of defining
himself based on such feedback.
Because of their verbal strengths, many individuals with NLD succeed
in formal educational situations. However, if their social competence has
not developed commensurately, they may not find and keep employment at
the level for which their education has prepared them.
Because individuals with NLD make considerable progress in areas of
weakness when instruction is appropriate, accurate diagnosis and appropriate
instruction can have great benefit for their lives.
Foss, J. (1991). Nonverbal learning disabilities and remedial interventions.
Annals of Dyslexia,41,128-140.
Johnson, D., and Myklebust, H. R. (1967). Nonverbal disorders of learning.
Learning disabilities: Educational principles and practices. New York:
Grune and Stratton.
Rourke, B. P. (1995). Syndrome of nonverbal learning disabilities. New
York: Guilford Press. Thompson, S. (1997). The source for nonverbal learning
disabilities. East Moline, IL: LinguiSystems.
ARK Foundation, Applied Research Knowledge, Allenmore Medical Center,
19th & Union, Suite A-311, Tacoma, WA 98405; e-mail: [email protected]
LD OnLine, Web site: http://www.ldonline.org/.
NLDA, Nonverbal Learning Disorders Association, P.O. Box 220, Canton,
CT 06019-0220; e-mail: [email protected]; Web site: http://www.nlda.org/.
Nonverbal Learning Disabilities, Web site: www.nldline.com/.
NLD On the Web, Web site: http://www.nldontheweb.org/.
Nonverbal Learning Disabilities, e-mail: [email protected]
Internet resources cited in this document were current at the time of
publication. Please note that Web addresses are subject to change.