NDL- Nonverbal Learning Disorder

NLD: Nonverbal Learning Disorder

You know him. He’s the one that sits at his desk during recess, reading rather than going outside to play ball with his classmates.

She’s the one that makes foolish remarks when she’s with friends. She’ll say something that is exaggerated or irrelevant to the topic at hand.

He’s awkward, always bumping into things.

Her handwriting is illegible and she’s weak in math.

These are children who suffer in school and out. They’re labeled “nerds” or described as “strange.” They try to fit in, but they don’t; worse yet, the more they try, the more they fail. Their self-esteem drops, they feel rejected and lonely, and are at risk for emotional problems.

The cause of their problems is a little-known learning disability called NLD, or Nonverbal Learning Disorder. This disability is often unrecognized because those who have it are usually verbally precocious and are thought to be equally capable in all areas. In turn, parents and educators (who are unacquainted with NLD) don’t understand the reason for the child’s awkwardness or poor performance. They presume that the cause is “laziness” or boredom. Hence, years may pass before these children receive an accurate diagnosis if they do at all.

Neurological Origin

The hemispheric specialization of the brain explains the origins of Nonverbal Learning Disorder. The left hemisphere of the brain is the seat of verbal information processing. The right hemisphere, in contrast, is specialized to process visual-spatial as well as emotional information. The right hemisphere’s functions are interwoven. As Dr. Wendy Heller of the University of Illinois points out, “It requires complex visual-spatial processing to decipher the meaning of a facial expression or to understand a series of complex gestures.”1

Assessment of individuals with NLD indicates a neurological dysfunction which affects the systems within the right hemisphere of the brain. The result is the observed discrepancy between their verbal and visuo-spatial/social skills.


Children with NLD have learning profiles that are characterized by strength in the verbal area and marked weakness in nonverbal functioning. The differential between these abilities leads to significant impairment in their social and academic performance.

Noteworthy is a deficiency in visual-spatial organization. Children with this learning disability often demonstrate relatively poor achievement in specific academic areas, such as mathematics, science or reading comprehension. In the early grades they may have difficulty with handwriting and cutting because of poor fine motor skills.

One of the most salient consequences of having NLD is the impairment in social functioning. Few of us realize how much of our social interactions are based on our understanding of the nonverbal cues of communication. Eye contact, hand gestures, tone of voice, body language, and posture are some of the many signals to which we attend when we speak with someone else.

Children that miss the nonverbal cues of communication2 often feel uncomfortable with their peers and may gravitate toward adults, who admire their broad knowledge, or to younger children, who will gladly take direction from them.

Lastly, children with NLD may display attentional problems such as distractibility and difficulty concentrating. Accordingly, they may be diagnosed as having Attention Deficit Disorder. Although AD/HD can co-occur with NLD, they are not synonymous. It is thus crucial to obtain an accurate diagnosis.


Children with NLD can benefit from the following:

1. Occupational therapy to develop their fine motor and visual-motor integration skills.

2. Social skills training – whether in school, at home, or within a therapeutic setting – as a means of learning effective communication and interpersonal skills.

3. Academic support in their areas of weakness.

4. Cognitive behavioral therapy or coaching techniques to help them cope with everyday challenges.

It is important that all interventions take place within the overall context of building the child’s self-esteem. Children with NLD have often experienced much negative feedback in a variety of situations. An important part of therapeutic treatment is to help them recognize their strengths and take pride in the achievement of new skills.

Not a Childhood Illness

Like all learning disabilities, NLD does not disappear with age. Children with NLD become teenagers and adults with NLD. Their neurological weakness can thus affect their personal and professional lives. Even adults with NLD can benefit from coaching that teaches them how to compensate for their weaknesses and utilize their strengths.

People with NLD are intelligent, reliable and often highly motivated to succeed. They need only garner support, understanding and mastery of unlearned skills to do so.

Recommended Books

Dr. Steven Nowicki and Marshall Duke have written two outstanding books on children with NLD:

Helping the Child Who Doesn’t Fit In (Peachtree Publishers, 1992).

Teaching Your Child the Language of Social Success (With Elisabeth Martin. Peachtree Publishers, 1996).

For adults with NLD:

What Does Everybody Else Know That I Don’t? By Michel Novotni (Specialty Press. 1999)

1 “Understanding Nonverbal Learning Disability,” by Wendy Heller, Ph.D. http://www.nldontheweb.org/heller.htm.

2 According to the Dr. Steven Nowicki, “one of every 10 children has significant problems with nonverbal communication” (Monitor on Psychology, September 2006, p.37).

Dr. Mona Spiegel is a Licensed Psychologist with a private practice in Rockland County, NY. She is also a Professional Coach who provides telephone sessions to women who do not need therapy but seek guidance concerning themselves or their families. She focuses on parenting issues, relationship/communication skills, and life transitions. You can reach her at 845-425-4842 or www.myfamilycoach.com.

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  1. Cindy Elgamal says:

    Any connection between NLD and Aspergers?

  2. Yes, many w/ AS are also dx’d w/ NLD. My own son JUST was dx’d with both last week – and from what I read kids w/ Asperger’s commonly also have NLD…

  3. my daughter is diagnosed with adhd and has some inconsistencies in her learning styles and abilities. she was tested last year, after begging her school district, and found to have difficulty with memory and self guided learning/independant reading and math computation, though her reasonng was above average (not too inconsistent with ADHD). Her social skills have always been on the “off” side, we always thought she was just immature and again, ADHD. Reading your article struck a cord though. i have always felt that “they-the docs” were missing something else, she didn’t quite fit any of the catagories into which she was placed, though she most closely resembled adhd, meds havn’t worked very well. it seems like we may need to re-investigate what is really going on. thanks for the info.

  4. I have a student who fits this profile. As a ‘move-in’ we haven’t had opportunity to explore just why he is the way he is. I’ve been struggling with this boy for days, often with the resolve of: ‘he’s just immature and lazy’. Maybe not? Where can I find out more?

  5. Elaina,
    It is wonderful that you are interested in more information about NLD related to the student in your class. Some excellent sources for information are:

    The Source for Nonverbal Learning Disorders by Sue Thompson


    Nonverbal Learning Disabilities at School by Pamela Tanguay.

    Thanks for caring enough to research NLD further. Your students will benefit!


  6. Another good reference is Helping a Child with Nonverbal Learning Disorder or Asperger’s Syndrome by Kathryn Stewart. ISBN-13 978-2-577224-277-7

    I got this book at Borders Bookstore and it has been very illuminating. Good Luck!

  7. My son fits the profile to a tee. His teachers are always on him about being lazy, but I know that he has the ability to be a success. He loves reading, he has become better with his writing skills, and he’s knowledgeable in all areas except math and science. Those are his weaknesses and he hate to tell anyone thinking they might laugh at him or tell him that he’s not trying hard enough. He has a major problem trying to make friends, he goes as far as becoming the class clown thinking this will help him make friends. This article has taken me in a whole different direction. Thanks

  8. Math and reading go slow and painfully for my daughter, yet somehow she succeeds and is able to maintain an A average. It takes her twice as long to complete these subject assignments, and often she ends up crying before she is done. She is easily distracted, and I think that’s why it is such a difficult task to complete. Even though she makes good grades, could she still have NDL?

  9. This sounds so much like my 5 yr. old son! He has sensory integration dysfunciton & is getting OT for that and his extremely poor fine motor skills. He’s been tested for giftedness & has an exremely high verbalIQ in the gifted range, but is a full 30 points lower in the non-verbal areas.

    How do I get a non-verbal learning disability diagnosed? What kind of Dr. do we see? Also, what kind of treatment should we seek in addition to the OT?

  10. Our 15 yr old daughter was diagnosed LD and ADD 10 years ago. A wonderful LD-R teacher identified her as NDL 6 years ago. We brought her home for school 8 years ago. (She was so distraught in school she wanted to end her life.) We supplemented home school with public school special ed, OT, PT services for 4 more years. She has flourished at home but it took time, patience and prayer. We were told in the beginning that we would need to help her learn how to handle all social situations. We took that seriously and it is working. She did not read until the end of 6th grade but benefited wonderfully from endless recorded books and books I read aloud. She now reads at level. Math & spelling are 4th grade but gaining ground very fast as is her handwriting. She loves vocabulary, history, art, libraries, and documentaries on any topic. 4-H has been wonderful for her. She has a few close friends her age but in general she has always done better with adults or much younger children. Socially she is still a few years behind. She is empowered to embrace the disabilities that make her unique and she is determined to do well in life. She is a very happy teenager but still learning how to read body language and voice tone/inflections. Thank you for the article – you described my girl. 🙂

  11. Hi Dore,
    Sorry in advance for a long post…

    My son was diagnosed with NLD when he was 9 years old. We saw a Pediatric Neurospychologist for a complete evaluation. I was already pretty sure that he had NLD so I made sure that the Doctor we saw was familiar with it. The testing ruled out certain things (i.e. ADD/ADHD) and also quantified my son’s Verbal IQ vs. Nonverbal IQ (the gap between these is apparently a big indicator that NLD or another neurologically based condition could be present.)

    Solving the mystery of why my son seemed gifted in so many ways but challenged by things that come naturally to a lot of kids was a big relief.

    If you think your son has NLD characteristics I would encourage you to look at some of the books and websites that people have posted here to get more information. http://www.nldontheweb.org has a helpful forum too.

    Good luck!

  12. Reading this reminded me of a workshop I went to in the fall. There was an excellent speaker on NLD. It seemed to describe so many of those students who couldn’t be explained. Those with Asperger’s or Autism at least had a “label”, but now so do those “others” that we just have a hard time understanding. NLD is a relatively new term, I believe isn’t it? There seemed to be a lot of physiological info given at the talk I attended. I must seek out my notes…

  13. Is Anxiety associated with NLD? My son has Sensory Integration Dysfunction, high anxiety (especially fearful at night with difficulty falling asleep). It has been suggested that he may have Asperger’s Syndrome but I’m wondering if it’s NLD instead…or both! How can one tell the difference?

  14. I feel somewhat relieved and also frustrated. My 10 year old has been struggling since she started school. She’s a preemie. Her K teacher ignored me and dismissed my concerns. Her 1st teacher noticed it in the first 30 days of school and requested she be tested. It wasn’t done until she was in 2nd. I already knew what they just found out. She was reading at a 6th level in 2nd, but doing math below 2nd. The disparity was not considered and she received no accommodations during testing. The school turned her down for services stating she is doing well in school and doesn’t qualify. She is a loner, reads all the time and spends so much time completing homework or brings unfinished classwork home. After 2 psychologist, 2 neurologist giving “impressions” for ADD/ADHD, depression, dyscalculia and other LD, I was instructed to have her diagnosed by a psychiatrist. Has anyone taken this route?

  15. Carol – You’re daughter sounds like mine! Almost 13 – 3rd year homeschooling. Can you please tell me what you are doing to help her learn how to read body language and voice/tone inflections? Any assistance would be greatly appreciated. Thanks!

  16. I am excited to read this information! Thanks to everyone for your informative comments.

    My 9yo daughter has been dx’d as bi-polar, and that definitely fits. However, when she was IQ-tested, she was the highest the psychologist had ever seen verbally but 30 – 40 points lower in the other areas. I’ve been perplexed about that until now, and I look forward to pursuing the links and resources that have been suggested. I’m so glad (for her sake — not always for mine!) that we’re homeschooling!

    Additionally, I think I’ll find that NLD fits for me, as well, and will explain a lot of my struggles as a very bright student who “never worked to her potential” in school.

  17. How did you get your son tested for giftedness? I have a 4 year old son with Sensory Integration Dysfunction and very weak fine motor skills. I was hoping to find some strengths he might have to help ease some of his frustrations. He also has a significant speech delay which qualifies him for the early childhood program. I’d like to find some link to make sense of his lack of speech.

  18. Dorothy Caruso says:

    I am a deep thinker and I’ve always have been an observer. I can find it difficult to relate to the commonality of life. I am also a teacher and see children who also question more than the average person; who also could be called “nerds” and whatnot, but to me this is a personality uniquiness; not a disorder.
    I question now, is it automates that we want? Is is robots who are all on the “same page” read “cues” from people who should be more direct rather then “guess what I’m thinking”.
    Adults misread “cues”! Adults can be deceived by misreading people; are children to do better?

    Have we all lost our minds; blind sheep just following fabricated “disroders” along the way? Follow the trail and see if it leads to drugging little children and you’ll find your anwser.

  19. Thank you for this article.

    You could have been writing about either of my boys, both have quite complex learning needs, or even myself when I was at school.

    It explains why I still find socialising and maintaining friendships quite a mystery/challenge.

    Thank goodness for home education too.
    My boys can develop their interests, have all the extra support they need in all the areas they need it, and socialise comfortably too.

    And people with NLD can have rewarding, fulfilling, happy lives.

  20. I’m with you, Dorothy, in that I think we use medications too often and too quickly. And when I see yet another “disorder” being publicized, my first reaction is to cringe. However, I think descriptions of certain sets of behavior that tend to go together, along with suggestions of how to address them positively, are helpful to those of us who struggle to help our “different” children on a daily basis.

    As a former public-school teacher, I never believed in all those diagnoses, but now I have my daughter, age 9, who’s been teaching me since birth! I didn’t want to admit it, but she definitely fits the criteria for bi-polar disorder, and since we received the diagnosis last year (my daughter doesn’t know of the BP label, as we don’t use that term with her yet), I’ve been able to find others in similar situations and learn from them. Now, after years of trying everything besides medication (attachment parenting, unconditional love, consistent discipline without punishment, play therapy, music therapy, etc.) — and still seeing my bright, beautiful daughter talk about killing herself, physically and emotionally abuse herself and her brother and parents, and go from high to low to high to low, with no in-betweens, … — we’re going in for a medication evaluation. Just to see what they have to offer and decide if there’s a med whose benefits will outweigh the risks for her, to help her gain a sense of normalcy so she can grow and develop without the effects of her obvious chemical imbalances.

    Anyway, with what I know about NLD so far, I don’t see where med’s would fit in, but there are other situations where they can definitely help as a last resort, after parenting and other variables have been carefully controlled.

  21. Dorothy and Karen:

    As a school teacher, I delight in the idiosyncrasies of each child. I love to encourage them to remain unique. The challenge lies with effectively teaching such a diverse group when one (myself) is unsure of the best approach for those who don’t fit any other already-tried category. I don’t want to sound as if I’m trying to peg my children into categories. It is just so helpful to be able to recognize tendencies with children as associated to others for the purposes of learning how they learn best and then working toward bringing them to a place of success. All children deserve to feel great about themselves and find success in their life. My ‘john doe’ is an adorable boy whom I just haven’t been able to reach yet. Hopefully, I’ll find some help for him and his parents, soon. Good luck to all of you!

  22. Marie Kovecsi says:

    Our son is 18 and we had to battle the school district to keep him in an ld program. They did not accept the diagnosis of nvld and said it was a medical diagnosis. We had an independent evaluation and several tense meetings. The school program does not address social skills and they exited him from OT.
    The neuropsychologist who diagnosed him said all asperger’s children have nvld but not the reverse– not all nvld kids are asperger’s.
    Thanks for the resources.
    Is anyone able to share college experiences?

  23. All this sounds very interesting to me. I’ve never heard of it before, but will definitely be checking in to it for my 9 yr old daughter. She has always been home schooled, so I have worked with her the best I can. The lack of math facts, poor handwriting, easily distracted, poor spelling, difficulty in remember things long term, but loves to read are some of her issues. I have wanted her tested for dyslexia, but maybe this is something to pursue as well. Thank you for all the information.

  24. Elaina — I think your “JD” is very fortunate to have a teacher who cares so much and is willing to keep working to help him succeed. Good luck!

  25. Dr. Spiegel suggested that you direct your specific questions to her via the “Ask Dr. Spiegel” section of her website. It’s a free service!  http://www.myfamilycoach.com/ask.html

    Please share your newfound knowledge with us!