Nonverbal Learning Disability

by Patricia S. Lemer, M. Ed., Chairman of the Board

Nonverbal Learning DisabilityWhat Is a Nonverbal Learning Disability?

First appearing in the literature in the late sixties, when I was finishing graduate school, non-verbal learning disabilities (NLD or NVLD) are now diagnosed frequently.

A nonverbal learning disability describes a cluster of deficits in motor, visual-spatial, social and sensory arenas combined with strengths in vocabulary, rote memory, and attention to detail. This syndrome causes sensory overload and profound difficulty with cognition, academics, and relationships.

NLD is easily confused with Asperger syndrome and sometimes used synonymously with the dual diagnosis of gifted/learning disabled. While most psychologists agree on the etiology and treatment of language-based learning disability (LD), vision-based LD or NLD is poorly understood.

Compensate or Remediate?

Traditional approaches to NLD focus on diagnosis and compensatory techniques, without addressing the motor, sensory and visual deficits. While teaching strategies can be beneficial, ameliorating deficits makes more sense.

In How to Develop Your Child’s Intelligence, Getman proposes a developmental relationship between the motor and visual systems that offers a structure for remediation in the context of development. At first the motor system dominates, then the motor and visual systems work together. Finally, vision dominates.

Motor First

Children diagnosed with a nonverbal learning disability probably had motor and sensory deficits in the first year of life. Any skipped step in motor development is a red flag to me. Those with NLD may have never crawled, walked early or late, or adopted idiosyncratic movement patterns. They could also overly favor one hand or lack a dominant side. Individualized sensory-motor activities can bring their motor systems up to age level.

The Motor-Visual Team

Binocular vision and depth perception emerge when the body begins to move through space. In the motor-visual stage, movement is primary. Then, as children learn to reach with the eye and the hand at the same time, movement allies with vision. If the two eyes do not work together, the body may show bilateral integration problems.

Deficits at this stage often cause motor clumsiness, lack of interest in motor activities, or extreme shyness due to spatial insecurity. A developmental optometric evaluation and intervention are imperative now, to avoid later visual-spatial and social problems.

Vision Directs Motor

Typically, vision takes precedence over movement sometime before kindergarten. This transition from motor-visual to visual-motor is a huge jump. How many times have pre-school teachers watched a child begin to draw a dog and end up with something else? That child’s hand simply could not produce what the mind told it to.

Many older children with a nonverbal learning disability are still not using their vision purposefully to direct their movements. To draw a dog, a child’s eyes must direct the motor act, as he visualizes the animal in his mind’s eye. The emergence of vision as the dominant sense depends upon a reliable store of touch, movement and muscle “memories” acquired during early development.

Children with a nonverbal learning disability have early histories of tactile defensiveness, vestibular disturbance and low tone, which preclude having well-integrated touch and movement experiences. To cope, they rely more heavily on what they hear than on what they sense, do or see.

Audition and language skills predominate over vision and the more primitive senses early on. As language becomes ever more proficient, the NLD child becomes less able to use vision to focus on and give meaning to what he sees. Avoidance and fear perpetuate the problems.

What Can We Do?

A nonverbal learning disability is REALLY a visual processing disorder that starts early in life with developmental motor, sensory and visual delays. Fortunately, it’s rarely too late to remediate. Epidemic Answers is committed to assisting those with NLD in finding skilled therapists to help close the gaps in their development.

The first priority should be a developmental vision exam. Most people with a nonverbal learning disability have problems with eye teaming, focusing, tracking and perception. Physical and occupational therapists, Brain Gym consultants, psychologists and developmental optometrists can all be part of the team working on sensory, motor, visual-spatial and social skills.

I look forward to the time when books and conferences on NLD include experts from the above disciplines. Individuals with NLD deserve more than palliative intervention. They CAN learn how to use their bodies and minds together. As Carla Hannaford aptly states in the subtitle of Smart Moves: “Learning is not all in your head!”