What is Nonverbal Learning Disability (Disorder)

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What is Nonverbal Learning Disability (Disorder)


I was in a Team meeting once and the team chair said “I was surprised that the student with diagnosed with nonverbal learning disability because they talk all the time.”

The term Nonverbal Learning Disorders (or NLD) refers to a neurological syndrome believed to result from damage to the white matter connections in the right-hemisphere of the brain, which are important for intermodal integration. Three major categories of dysfunction present themselves: (1) motoric (lack of coordination, severe balance problems, and difficulties with fine graphomotor skills); (2) visual-spatial-organizational (lack of image, poor visual recall, faulty spatial perceptions, and difficulties with spatial relations); and (3) social (lack of ability to comprehend nonverbal communications, difficulties adjusting to transitions and novel situations, and deficits in social judgment and social interaction). Individuals with NLD generally have exceptional verbal skills, do well in school subjects requiring decoding (the word recognition aspect of reading) and encoding (spelling) written language, have excellent auditory attention and memory, and learn primarily through verbal mediation. This syndrome appears to be the exact opposite of dyslexia. This is taken from Nonverbal Learning Disorders Revisited in 1997 by Sue Thompson,

NLD often resembles Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) because the student with NLD has poor attention to visual and tactile input.  Cognitive testing will often reveal a significant discrepancy between verbal and performance scores, with verbal scores often in the very superior range.

The difficulty in advocating for these students is the low incidence rates of the disability and the lack of awareness about what these students needs are. The enormous pressure this child faces when attempting to function in a world where no concessions are made for them, and where they are expected to conform to the same standards set for their nondisabled peers, is sometimes difficult to fathom.

The significant difficulties that a student with NLD faces is that they are missing at least 65% of the intent of their communications. And, at the same time, they are attempting to cope with the cognitive, as well as the visual-spatial-organizational demands of attending school. Add to this a continuous overloading of the senses (too much noise, visual stimulation or physical stimulation). The monumental effort mandated to get through a day at school is both overwhelming and exhausting for the child with NLD.

In addition to this extreme exhaustion, slow processing speed and severe organizational deficits make it necessary to lessen the homework/class work load for this child. The student with NLD is usually so exhausted by the time school lets out, they literally collapses upon arriving home. It is unreasonable and unfair, and it places an undue burden upon the child’s parents, to expect that this child spend hours each night trying to get through tedious homework assignments. They definitely needs some “down time” after a day at school.

Dr. Byron Rourke emphasizes that the principal impediment to a successful educational program for the student with NLD is invariably the teacher’s “faulty impression that the child is much more adept and adaptable than is actually the case.”

Below I have listed some supports and accommodations that are essential for the NLD child to be successful in school.

1.  Provide in-service training for staff members to education them about NLD and some districts may offer curriculum on NLD for educators and educational therapist. There are several books that can be read to talk about the unique profile of this student and their learning style. One website that is completely dedicated to NLD is: http://www.nldline.com/

2.  Monthly Team Clinics  and weekly check-ins for the entire educational team.  One person should oversee the programming of the student and have close contact with the students parents about progress.

3.  Work toward the students strengths. These students learn differently from their peers, they tend to learn rote material quickly and easily. These students seems to have endless storage space in their memory and have the ability to “absorb” details and information. Capitalize on these strengths. Their strong verbal skills should be used as a primary means for acquiring additional skills. The future successes of this child are dependent upon his acquisition of compensatory strategies, usually verbal, to circumvent their areas of incompetency. Always try to pair verbal with visual.  consider a computer for typing but also for the students educational needs in writing, math, social skills, reading, and organization.

4.  Develop organizational goals when appropriate, and provide guidance for visual-spatial complexities.  A student with NLD is often lost or tardy, they have difficulty with internal and external organization, visual- spatial orientation, directional concepts and coordination the school campus.

5.  Provide Predictable schedule. The student with NLD generally copes well in a structured predictableenvironment. However, they will experience extreme stress when faced with forced or unexpected changes in routine. Teachers will need to prepare these students ahead of time for all changes in routine and transitions, such as: field trips, assemblies, substitute teachers and modified days. Staff should use a written and numbered schedule to help prepare them for changes. Minimizing transitions and giving several verbal cues to the student before transitions;

6  Makes very literal translations. The student with NLD tends to make very literal translations of speech and text. As accommodations students should have in their IEP that staff will: Simplifying and breaking-down abstract concepts;

  • Starting with concrete concepts and images and slowly moving to abstract concepts and images, at a pace set by the student;
  • Understanding that metaphors, emotional nuances, multiple levels of meanings, and relationship issues as presented in novels will not be understood unless explained;
  • Teaching the student to say “I’m not sure what you mean” or “That doesn’t make sense to me” to give her a specific vocabulary to help her decipher your intent.

7.  Support for Students with stress and anxiety

Dealing with the ordinary demands of life and getting through a “normal” day at school requires an extraordinary amount of forethought and determination for the student with NLD It is impossible for most educators to fully appreciate the high level of anxiety the student with NLD experiences on a daily basis. This child is easily stressed by both internal and external pressures, leaving her extremely emotionally vulnerable. It is imperative for teachers and parents to do everything possible to minimize the stress a student with NLD experiences. This can be accomplished by:

Previewing and preparing for all novel situations and transitions in advance

  • Providing a consistent and predictable daily routine;
  • Gradually exposing this child to new activities, teachers, classes, schools, etc
  • Ensuring that this child is safe from physical and emotional abuse; · Avoiding sudden and unexpected surprises
  • Thoroughly preparing the child in advance for field trips, modified schedules, or other changes, regardless of how minimal
  • Talking the child through stressful situations or (non-punitively) removing her from the stressful situation
  • Providing personal space in the resource room or other designated area for regrouping and relaxation

8.  Imparts the “illusion of competency”

The student with NLD is cognitively intact, usually displaying above-average to superior verbal intelligence. This creates an “illusion of competency” and the expectation for success in school. Applying age and grade-level expectations with flexibility Emphasizing the strong academic skills and gifts of the child with NLD by creating cooperative learning situations in which his proficient verbal, reading, oral spelling, vocabulary, and memory skills will be showcased to advantage (and his difficulties with writing can be de-emphasized) Never assuming this child understands something just because he can parrot back what you have said.

As a special education advocate for over ten years I have advocated for many students with NLD and often have to push hard for the appropriate services for these children.  I have also had these battles with my own son who is now thirteen and we still struggle with many of these issues on a daily basis.

Maureen Finaldi, M.S
Owner of Advocacy for Special Kids.  Maureen has over ten years experience as a special education advocate.  Maureen has advocated for students with a variety of disabilities including, Autism Spectrum Disorders, Nonverbal Learning Disabilities, Global Developmental Delays, Executive Functioning, ADHD, Dyslexia. 
A member of the Council of Parent Attorney’s and Advocates, the Special Needs Advocacy Network, National Association for Professional Special Education Advocates. Trainer for Encompass Education and the Federation for Children with Special Needs. 
Website www.advocacyforspecialkids.org
Owner of Advocacy for Special Kids, LLC

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