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Understanding Nonverbal Learning Disability (NLD or NVLD)

by Scott Crouse, Certified School Psychologist, of
Although NLD (or NVLD) is sometimes promoted as a rather new term within the broader area of 'learning disabilities', in reality the notion of a nonverbal learning disability has been considered since the earliest days of LD diagnosis. In essence, a nonverbal learning disability describes a situation in which the underlying cause of a student's learning difficulties is believed to be a generalized weakness in the ability to cognitively process nonverbal information. Typically, such a student performs quite well verbally (both receptively or 'listening' and expressively or 'speaking') but struggles to understand or remember information which is presented visually. This is not due to poor vision but is related to an assumed weakness in the brain's ability to fully or efficiently process nonverbal information.

In the early days of LD diagnosis and treatment, evaluators would frequently look at differences between Verbal and Nonverbal (Performance) IQ scores in order to diagnose learning disabilities. A relatively low Performance (or nonverbal) IQ score suggested underlying visual or perceptual processing difficulties which were believed to be the cause of the student's learning difficulties. As our professional understanding of cognitive processing broadened, it became apparent that there was much more to most learning disabilities than simply a difference between verbal and nonverbal abilities. Ultimately, it was found that many students who were formerly believed to have visual or perceptual processing weakness were more accurately diagnosed through other processing models. As a result, the visual/auditory or verbal/nonverbal comparison lost favor as a diagnostic process.

So why has the NLD term made such a dramatic comeback in recent years? Well, as with many other educational theories which lose favor and then are later resurrected, it seems that psychologists and other educational diagnosticians have found reason to believe that certain subgroups of LD students not only demonstrate the old 'verbal vs. nonverbal' discrepancy but also frequently demonstrate other social and behavioral characteristics which set them apart from other LD students. These characteristics frequently include difficulty accurately perceiving social situations, confusion with nonverbal communication, and generalized social disinterest or avoidance.

Because of the rather unique cluster of behaviors and cognitive skills found with these NLD students, some professionals have even suggested the need for a separate NLD special education category. Other educational professionals are skeptical of the need or appropriateness of such a classification and note that this same pattern of behavioral and cognitive skills is found in many students who have been identified within the category of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and more specifically, Asperger's Disorder (formerly known as 'high functioning autism'). In fact, it has been suggested by some that many of the students who are currently being given the NLD diagnosis may more appropriately be identified within the ASD special education category.

In any case, the primary factor in diagnosing a true nonverbal learning disability is the documentation of a generalized weakness in nonverbal or visually-based information processing skills. This continues to be most accurately evaluated though formal cognitive assessment by an instrument (or battery of instruments) which evaluates both verbal and nonverbal abilities and provides broad cluster scores in both of these areas. Students with nonverbal processing weakness will typically struggle most with academic tasks which involve complex or abstract visual displays (charts, graphs, maps, etc.) and which provide limited verbal or auditory information. These students will generally have most difficulty in the areas of math and spelling (due to poor visualization) but may also struggle with hands-on activities (science labs, etc.). Reading and creative writing skills will probably be relatively strong.

When students are found to demonstrate both nonverbal learning difficulties and also rather significant and unusual social/behavioral characteristics, the possibility of an underlying Autism Spectrum Disorder should not be overlooked.

Scott Crouse is a Certified School Psychologist. His site,, provides practical information about all types of learning disabilities, learning styles, and learning disorders plus new sections related to emotional and behavioral concerns! Try the free online learning disability and emotional/behavioral rating scales.
You can reach him at:

Disclaimer: Internet Special Education Resources (ISER) provides this information in an effort to help parents find local special education professionals and resources. ISER does not recommend or endorse any particular special education referral source, special educational methodological bias, type of special education professional, or specific special education professional.


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