Understanding Nonverbal Learning Disorder

A large amount of achievement and learning is determined by academic achievements. How well does she read? How well does he write? How are you at reading comprehension? But what if there was a learning disability that can’t be identified through these typical academic measurements?  That is the problem with understanding and diagnosing Nonverbal Learning Disorder (NLD). NLD is hard to recognise and diagnose because it is hard to identify within an academic setting. Often teachers or parents may attribute differences to behavioural problems.  But what if the behaviour is actually due to a learning disability? Let’s learn about the basics of Non-verbal Learning Disorder.

What is it?

Nonverbal Learning Disorder impacts the right hemisphere of the brain.  This is where fine motor skills, spatial processing and organisational skills develop. Most common learning disabilities like dyslexia, develop in the left side of the brain, where we develop reading and writing skills.  This is why this learning disorder is so often overlooked!  Although NLD is a rare occurring disorder (1 in 1,000), a lack of understanding and diagnosis can lead to hardships for children and may lead to anxiety, depression, isolation and other psychological problems later in life.

There are three broad aspects of normal development within which NLD can cause abnormalities: Motoric, Visual-Spatial-Organisational, and Social.


Motoristic abnormalities may initially surface as clumsiness. Toddlers may hesitate to explore their environment and instead verbally ask questions about their new location.  In small children it may take a moment after being sat down to mentally process the change.  A child will try to remember where to place their body in space to balance as opposed to it happening more naturally.  Simple childhood physical tasks may take longer to achieve like kicking a ball and riding a bike. This can lead to social problems in later years when gym class or sports may lead to social pressure to perform. Motoristic abnormalities will also surface in the fine motor skills like holding scissors, a pencil and learning to write.  It is commonly said that children with NLD don’t learn to write, they learn to draw. The child’s handwriting may be neat but the process is long and laboured.


The most notable symptoms of impairments in this area are verbal cues. Visual imagery is difficult and spatial processing is impaired so a child may verbally label everything in the room. This may happen as a toddler, as they may verbally walk themselves through tasks but as older children, this may just happen subconsciously and can be hard to catch as an adult. Other indications may be a fear of new situations. Many children will remember fine details of a home or place they have visited previously but upon returning, have no idea of the actual layout of the place, like where the restroom is located or where the car is parked. This may also surface on an over dependence on adults due to the anxiety of not understanding.


It is said that 65% of communication in conversation is non-verbal, so for someone with NLD social interactions can be incredibly difficult. Children are often labeled as ‘attention seeking’ when in reality it is behaviour due to social impairment.  Individuals with NLD rely on literal translations of conversations which commonly lead to missing a change in tone or mood of the conversation. Oftentimes this misinterpretation leads to naively trusting others, not understanding concepts like sarcasm or ‘white lies’, or most commonly , simply isolating oneself from social interactions all together.  Anything that is not black or white or ‘concrete’ is difficult to understand. It is common for a child with his impairment to hear the phrase ‘You knew what I meant!’, when in reality, the child had no understanding.

As with most learning disabilities, the earlier these disabilities are diagnosed and understood by the caregivers around the child, the greater the outcome of learning to live a happy and healthy life. There are many interventions and tools to help caregivers interact with NLD.  If you are concerned about your child’s learning or behaviour, do not hesitate to contact a professional psychologist.  To book in a time to speak to a psychologist contact us on (02) 6262 6157 or book an appointment online.

Source: Sue Thompson, M.A., C.E, ‘Nonverbal Learning Disorders’, https://www.ldonline.org/ld-topics/nonverbal-ld/nonverbal-learning-disorders

Related Reading:

What is Autism?
How do I Know if my Child has Learning Disabilities?
What do Child Psychologists Do?

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