The first time I encountered the term, “nonverbal learning disability,” I was in the middle of an intake call with a parent, and I had no idea what she was talking about.
“Is that a kind of autism?” I asked, feeling sheepish. The answer was complex: yes, according to some academics and educators; no according to the DSMIV. That’s probably why I hadn’t heard of it, and many educators still probably haven’t either. Still, squabbles over exact definitions aside, the parent told me, this was her son’s diagnosis. It came with an array of symptoms that certainly fit, and she needed my help. I told her I’d try my best, and immediately began my research.
I learned a lot over the next year, both in my preparatory work and as I worked up close with my student, even as the disability was continually redefined by the educational community. Here is what I learned.
Photo Credit: Marco Antonio Torres
Don’t let the title mislead you: students with Nonverbal Learning Disabilities (NVLDs) are actually great with words. The “non” means that their disability applies to everywhere but pure verbalism — much like being “nearsighted” means that you can see what’s close up.
In fact, students with NVLD often have advanced vocabularies. For example, once when my student and I were brainstorming names for great wrestling moves (don’t ask me why I had this on the agenda, it seemed relevant at the time), he came up with such gems as the, “pulverizing peanut,” and the “thrilling shrimp.” These students also tend to spell well, and can memorize and repeat large amounts of information.
The problems come in organizing, understanding, and analyzing thought related to what they’re reading. They have difficulty putting events in order and have trouble understanding cause and effect and the subtleties of relationships. Humor and sarcasm are particularly difficult, as is more abstract as opposed to concrete thinking. NVLD students tend to be literal thinkers, something I ran into when, in reading Harry Potter to my student, we came across the phrase, “The door tinkled open.” He thought that was hilarious, for obvious reasons.
Rigidity not only makes reading comprehension difficult, but it can make math and science a struggle as well. Even simple symbols like a subtraction sign can be perplexing, and spatial reasoning is also quite hard.
Because rote memorization is so important to early learning, NVLD is often not spotted until later in elementary school, when students are required to do more self-help and organization, as well as higher level, abstract thinking. There are also painful social realities for many students with NVLDs, as they have difficulty understanding the subtleties of relationships. They might not know, for example, when someone is being sarcastic, nor that their friends don’t want to hear every fact they’ve memorized. This is closely related to the student’s difficulty processing visual information, which makes reading body language and facial cues difficult.
Students with NVLD often have difficulty with motor functioning, and are at the least perceived as being uncoordinated.
Because NVLDs are so often underdiagnosed and misunderstood, students who have them are often perceived as being lazy, anxious, and angry. In reality, they’re struggling and confused in a classroom with a kind of thinking their brains were not set up for.
In my student, NVLD manifested most often in the form of rigid and literal thinking. It felt as if he was great at making that first neural connection, but once that was there, no other connections were allowed. This often lead to answers to my questions that at first seemed bizarre, but actually made a lot of sense upon investigation.
For instance, in preparation for a test at school, I asked him to name the three ships in the Columbus expedition. He could only name one boat, and that boat’s name? “The Jeff.”
If you’re wondering whether or not it was difficult not to crack a smile — “Here come the Niña, The Pinta, and the Jeff!” — you are correct. But once I gently inquired about his answer, it turned out to be very simple: my student’s dad has a friend named Jeff. Once they went on a fishing expedition with Jeff on his boat, creatively titled, The Jeff, and that was that — my student’s main experience with boats. If I could visualize the neural web in which he stored and categorized information, it would have a linear branch off of a single concept:
…as opposed to many different branches that eventually became a web.
Sure, all of this other information was also in my student’s head. It just wasn’t attached to “boat,” because boat’s one dock had already been claimed.
The answer to this question depends on to whom you’re talking. As I touched on previously, there is no official diagnosis in the DSMIV for NVLDs, so students who visit a psychiatrist for their diagnosis are commonly told that they have Autism ADHD or PDD-NOS (Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified). NVLD, on the other hand, is a diagnosis from the field of neuropsychology, and is achieved as the result of a battery of tests.
Given this split between the fields, there is controversy over whether or not NVLD should be considered separately from autism. Also complicating matters is the fact that many symptoms of NVLD overlap with that of Asperger’s. Most NVLD advocates set the difference in the severity of these symptoms. For example, while students with NVLD may repeat memorized information at inappropriate times, they tend to be less obsessive than students with Asperger’s, and therefore less likely to dig into one topic and learn — and repeat — everything they know. My student, as an example, was relatively socially adept, with his social awkwardness manifesting only in very specific ways, usually to do with a literal or rigid interpretation. He really wanted to have social interactions; it was just that he didn’t have an intuitive sense about how to go about forming them. However, symptoms for both disorders can range in severity.
Like all learning disabilities, NVLDs have nothing to do with intelligence. As a wonderful instructor, Laura Rogan, of Wired for Reading, once put it in a course I took: students with learning disabilities have all of the same infrastructure; it’s just that they’re taking the country road to get from point A to point B rather than the freeway. They’ll get there eventually, they just might take a little longer. Official diagnosis aside, it’s our job as teachers to learn as much as we can about the roads their taking, and help them take a few shortcuts.
1. Help NVLD Students Organize Information
Given the rigidity of an NVLD student’s thinking, it is crucial to help students organize information as it comes in so that it can be easily retrieved. In her book, Helping a Child With a Nonverbal Learning Disorder or Asperger’s Disorder, Kathryn Stewart uses the analogy of a dresser to demonstrate how important storing information in the right place is to retrieval. She says, for example, imagine how difficult it would be to find the socks you wanted if you sometimes put them in their own drawer, and you sometimes put them in with your underwear.
Teachers and parents help students with NVLDs by working with them directly on developing a structure and routine both in the classroom and outside of it, to ensure all information is processed in a standard manner. However, in doing so, it is important not to overwhelm the student with information. Stewart describes how effective an index card system was for one student named Ivan, as opposed to a traditional schedule. On each index card there was a picture depicting what Ivan should be doing, like going to his desk, or waiting in line. The cards were then organized to depict his schedule. His teacher could discuss his schedule with him every day, and if anything needed to be changed, she could remove the card as he watched, so there were no surprises to upset him.
Organizational systems are just as important for notes and assignments. While it is important to be comprehensive, it is also important to be concise so as not to overwhelm your student, and to really give them something to grasp onto.
2. Be Patient With a Slower Processing Speed
In my experience, it wasn’t so much that new connections couldn’t be formed period — it was that they just took awhile to get there. As such, I tried my best to build my student’s knowledge base from the bottom up rather than top down. No matter what we were studying, we began with concrete facts and simple relationships, going over them again and again until they were really solid before moving on. I never started with the bigger, more abstract concept and worked my way down; rather, if I ever had hope of getting to those abstractions, I had to embrace the idea that they’d emerge from the smaller things.
3. Teach Students How to Focus
This relates closely to another Stewart suggestion: teaching your student how to focus, especially in novel situations (and for students with NLVDs, most situations feel novel and stressful, as it’s difficult to see how new permutations are related to an old idea or experience). Breathing techniques can prove particularly effective, as well as an emphasis on capturing only as much information as they can the first time around, safe with the knowledge that you’ll let them go over everything again. You can further help students by making a concerted effort to break tasks down into manageable parts with step-by-step instructions.
4. Teach Social Skills
Not all of us are social butterflies, and that’s okay. Work directly with your NVLD students to help them recognize facial cues, body languages, and emotions — both preventatively and during times of conflict. A devoted curriculum with lesson plans is best for this, as students will really need to imbibe social lessons intellectually.
5. Allow Self-Talk
Students with NVLDs are great talkers; why not let them talk their way through a task? Ask them to repeat what you’ve just said, and give them a special space where they can work out problems aloud in a low voice. Doing so will help dig that information deeper into their brains, form those connections, and reinforce important concepts.
6. Avoid Punitive Action
Imagine not really “getting” cause and effect or how different concepts and experiences are related to one another. Figuring out how to avoid trouble would be pretty difficult, wouldn’t it? Every punishment would feel like it came out of nowhere, because you wouldn’t be able to see the connections. Instead, opt for constructive criticism and coaching wherever possible.
My student with NVLD was one of the sweetest, most hard working, intelligent, kind hearted, and joyful kids I’ve ever worked with. I moved to a new city after working with him for a year, and more than two years on, I still ask the colleague I referred him to how he’s doing and if he’s said anything particularly hilarious lately. In the right environment with the right structure, patience, and one-on-one guidance, there’s nothing these bright students can’t do. Just as long as we take the time and the care to figure them out.