Much misunderstood: Non-verbal learning disorder

When you first saw the term “non-verbal learning disorder,” did you think it meant that the people with this condition are nonverbal? That’s a common misunderstanding – one of many associated with NVLD (or NLD).

In fact, people with NLD are quite verbal. Where they have difficulty is in non-verbal areas (ah, now it makes sense!): things like finding their way around, reading between the lines, picking up on body language, seeing the bigger picture.

In short, individuals with NLD have difficulty integrating information, which ends up with them misunderstanding parts of their world. People in their lives often don’t understand why. Furthermore, NLD traits are often misunderstood by psychologists and other clinicians, leading to misdiagnoses and treatments that don’t help: a prime example of a Cinder Cone “falling through the cracks” situation.

It’s hard to say how common NLD is in the population. A few of the sources I looked at estimated that it affects 0.1% to 1% of the population, but I saw one that said it’s probably as common as dyslexia (estimates there range from 5%-20%). I also read that NLD affects males and females equally, and tends to run in families.

Because it traditionally has been a poorly understood condition – one that wasn’t on the radar screen of most parents, educators, and mental health professionals – many cases of NLD were not identified in childhood. This hidden disability is often diagnosed for the first time in adulthood, if at all.

If someone in your life is struggling with parts of school, work and social life but doesn’t quite seem to fit the profile (or respond to treatment) for autism spectrum, ADHD, or sensory processing disorder (SPD), check out this list of NLD characteristics, presented in no particular order:

  • too literal; often doesn’t pick up on sarcasm, nuance or jokes
  • good verbal skills, but struggles with reading comprehension (the big picture) and with organizing thoughts when writing
  • too rigid: routines are overly important, doesn’t handle unexpected disruptions well
  • overshares information, keeps talking long after listeners are ready to move on, interrupts conversations
  • anxious about socializing (an especially big problem for teens) – no one seems to “get” them
  • clumsy; may have challenges with fine motor skills also
  • difficulty interpreting graphs and charts
  • trouble with spatial orientation; not good at reading maps
    • can be disoriented even in familiar places
  • difficulties with planning, difficulty setting priorities
  • trouble following multi-step procedures
  • hard to stay focused
  • OK with arithmetic, but struggles with higher math

A person with NLD may not have all of the above characteristics, and the severity of each can vary depending on the individual. (And it’s certainly true that these traits are also found in the general population!)

Some of these characteristics are also present in ADHD, autism or SPD. To make things even more complicated, an individual can have one or more of these diagnoses.

Even so, it’s worth noting the differences in the traits. For instance, people with ADHD welcome variety and change; people with NLD tend to be thrown off by disruption.

And here’s a distinction between NLD and autism spectrum disorder: people with the former are verbal thinkers, while those with the latter are visual thinkers. With an NLD brain, you need words to conceptualize a picture or place. With autism, a picture or place is visualized in the mind without words.

To restate the relationship between people with NLD and words: they are highly verbal and depend on words when thinking about the unseen, and when finding their way around. On the other hand, they struggle to extract the big picture from the words they read or hear, and to understand what’s left unsaid. What a complicated relationship with language!

Over a lifetime, NLD can make individuals feel odd or incompetent, even if they have learned to compensate. Struggles with depression and/or anxiety often result.

Meanwhile, the neurotypical world misunderstands the nature and depth of how NLD affects someone, since the challenges are masked by strong verbal skills.

What’s a person to do? If you suspect NLD, seeking out a neuropsychologist is the best route to getting a meaningful evaluation and an accurate diagnosis.

Unfortunately, NLD isn’t included in the DSM-5, and in the US it isn’t covered by IDEA, meaning that a child with that diagnosis and no other isn’t eligible for an IEP or a 504 plan in school.

It’s not all doom and gloom, though. For one thing, here are some positive traits often associated with NLD:

  • above-average to superior intelligence
  • able to recall details of passages read
  • creative
  • resourceful
  • honest
  • fair-minded
  • sweet
  • advanced conversation skills (noticeable in children)

Occupational therapy and social skills training can help people of any age with NLD.

Two online resources I found that are devoted to this disorder are NLDLine and the NVLD Project. Websites devoted to learning disabilities in general also have information.

Young people with NLD can succeed in pursuing higher education. It helps if they get assistance from the school’s disability resource center.

If you’re wondering about suitable jobs, here’s one person’s informal suggestions of careers that might be a good fit for individuals with NLD.

Now I’ll close with a request: if you’ve had experience with NLD, please post a comment to let us know about your struggles and successes!


Sources (other than those linked to above):

General information










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About janet565

I've lived in the Inland Empire of Southern California since 1982. My profession involves maps and geography. I hope you find the blog useful, and wish you well....

5 responses to “Much misunderstood: Non-verbal learning disorder”

  1. lynnkelleyauthor says :

    I’d never hear of NLD before, and I can see how difficult it would be to have it, considering body language and facial expressions make up–I forget the percentage of communication, but over 90%. Hopefully, blog posts like yours will help make people more aware of this condition.

    Not being eligible for an IEP or 504 plan in school adds insult to injury. I imagine a parent would have to have a doctor’s help in tinkering with the diagnosis or flat out challenging the school (while presenting a note from a neuropsychologist) to get a child the help and cooperation they need.

    Perhaps when the DSM is updated, they’ll include NLD, and that will help as far as getting help at school. I’m wondering if insurance covers this condition, or does the doctor or therapist or whoever is treating a person with NLD have to add a different diagnosis just so the insurance will kick in. Thanks for an excellent post, Janet.


    • janet565 says :

      Lynn, you bring up some great points about hedging the diagnosis away from NLD to get school services and insurance coverage. My guess is that it happens a fair amount. Thanks for your comments!


    • briannederosa says :

      One thing to note is that just because the lack of inclusion in the DSM precludes schools from automatically HAVING to accommodate kids, doesn’t mean that all schools REFUSE to accommodate kids. Part of the frustration for families, certainly, is the variability in services from school to school and location to location. Our 12-year-old son has NVLD and his public middle school provided a 504 plan without hesitation. They’ve been wonderful to him. We did, however, as you suggest, show up with a full, updated neuropsych evaluation that detailed strengths, weaknesses, testing results and a list of suggested accommodations, which made it much easier for them.
      One big challenge that often gets lost even when schools are helpful is that the amount of energy it takes for these kids to get through the day — because, as you say, so much information is non-verbally mediated, so they’re constantly working extra hard to extract meaning from their environments — is enormous. They tend to tire very easily and need a break every once in a while just to overcome the mental strain of compensating.


  2. foothillbilly says :

    I was diagnosed at the age of 45 and have never received support service of any kind for my NVLD. My IQ test showed more than 4 standard deviations between the verbal and the performance subtests (WISC test). It’s probably needless to say, but I’ve had an interesting time. I was self-supporting by one means or another from the time I began recovery from alcoholism (age 32) until I became disabled by various other issues (age 56).


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