Source: Adapted with permission from an article by Patti Brace in LDA of Kingston Newsletter

Nonverbal learning disabilities (NLD) are less well known than language-based learning disabilites such as dyslexia.

Typically, people with nonverbal learning disabilities show:

  • excellent memory for things they hear
  • poor memory for things they see
  • good reading ability
  • very poor arithmetic ability
  • excellent verbal expression and verbal reasoning
  • problems with written expression (often because of poor handwriting)
  • problems with sense of direction, estimation of size, shape, distance
  • problems reading facial expressions, gestures, social cues, tones of voice

Nonverbal learning disabilities often go undiagnosed because reading ability tends to be regarded as the chief indicator of academic well-being by most public school systems. Because it has a pronounced effect on social interaction, as well as academic performance, nonverbal learning disabilities present a unique challenge to parents, teachers and adult consumers.

The chief characteristics of nonverbal learning disabilities include:

  • tactile-perceptual deficits, usually on the left side of the body
  • coordination difficulties, again often more marked on the left side of the body
  • problems with visual-spatial organization
  • extreme difficulty adapting to new and complex situations
  • reliance on rote behaviours (which may or may not be appropriate) in new situations
  • trouble understanding nonverbal feedback in social situations
  • problems with social perception, social judgement and social interaction
  • distorted sense of time
  • very strong rote verbal abilities (e.g. large vocabulary)
  • reliance on language as the primary means for social relating, information-gathering and relief from anxiety
  • difficulties with arithmetic and, later, with scientific concepts and theories
  • inattention and hyperactivity earlier in childhood; and social withdrawal and isolation later

When people with nonverbal learning disabilities are assessed, typically, their performance IQ is significantly lower than their verbal IQ, because of visual-spatial weaknesses.

Young Children
Young NLD children tend to stray from home or groups and get lost easily. They often spill things at mealtime because of problems with motor coordination and have trouble dressing themselves for the same reason. Problems with spatial skills appear in a weak understanding of nonverbal information (e.g. pictures, cartoons, passage of time) and nonverbal tasks like puzzles.

Many children with NLD use words in an adult fashion and learn to read before school age because of their auditory strengths. Thus, they often try to gain information about the world around them by asking endless questions of adults rather than by exploring on their own. The inaccuracy of their visual perception, physical awkwardness and difficulty integrating information in space and time make it harder for them to make sense of the physical world. This compensation can compound the problem, however, for the less the child engages in physical exploration, the less she/he learns about relationships between objects in space.

Academic Issues
Students with NLD generally appear to possess above-average cognitive skills because of their verbal strengths, but often show academic difficulties as they reach secondary levels.

Spatial and coordination problems make printing and writing, learning math, telling time, reading and colouring maps and keeping one’s place on the page difficult from early grades. By secondary school more complex verbal language is based on nonverbal processes like spatial relationships (in science, for example), logical ordering, and sequencing (both skills necessary for writing essays.) This can cause problems in subject areas other than math. For example, students often experience difficulties with sense of time, arranging written material on a page, making change, and sewing and typing, all of which demand good spatial awareness.

Throughout the school years, children with NLD are often inattentive and poorly organized because they have trouble integrating and interpreting incoming information. They tend to pay attention to each detail as it comes in, rather than combining them into more meaningful wholes. The effort quickly leads to information overload, with which these students will often cope by clinging to familiar habits and routines that help them to structure their world. Sometimes this means of coping appears as misbehaviour.
In later secondary and post-secondary education, information is frequently presented in lecture form. For students with NLD, problems arise because they have to integrate information they hear with the act of writing, already difficult because writing is often awkward and slow. In addition, students who attend equally to individual details as they appear have enormous difficulty separating important from unimportant information.

Teachers can support students with NLD by outlining material to be covered, using overheads containing central points while lecturing, providing clear schedules of the day’s events, breaking down complex tasks into smaller, sequenced pieces, using discussion rather than lectures to develop and integrate ideas, and using students’ strengths in rote learning to help them develop habits and routines to organize themselves and their work.

Social and Emotional Issues
Possibly the biggest area of concern for children and adults with NLD is social skills. One result of having trouble processing nonverbal and spatial information is missing or misinterpreting subtle social cues like facial expressions, gestures and tones of voice. For example, a phrase like “nice going” means something different when you’ve just dropped a ball or tripped over a skipping rope (again) than when you’ve gotten a perfect score on a spelling test. Confusing the two can spell “disaster” on the playground.

Unlike a student who has difficulty reading but does well with social and sports activities, students with NLD are affected in all areas. This can lead to social isolation which children will sometimes try to alleviate by interacting only with adults, who are more appreciative of their verbal strengths and less concerned about physical awkwardness or violations of social conventions. However, because children with NLD are highly verbal, parents and teachers tend to attribute their academic and social failure to laziness or poor character. This can lead to emotional problems like depression and anxiety that may be expressed in physical ways (e.g. nail and cuticle biting, headaches, stomach problems, phobias).

Parents and teachers can help children with NLD learn more effective social skills by talking about social rules and playing games in which children guess the feelings that go with facial expressions and tones of voice, and figure out appropriate responses. Friends and spouses of adults with NLD can help by pointing out social rules and articulating the information often carried by a look or a gesture.


  1. Gross-Tsur, Varda et al. “Developmental Right-Hemisphere Syndrome: Clinical Spectrum of the Nonverbal Learning Disability”. Journal of Learning Disabilities, February 1995.
  2. Harnadek, Michael and Byron P. Rourke. “Principal Identifying Features of the Syndrome of Nonverbal Learning Disabilities in Children”. Journal of Learning Disabilities, March 1994.
  3. Humphries, Tom. Nonverbal Learning Disabilities: A Distinct Group Within Our Population. Communique (LDA Ontario), Autumn 1993.
  4. Moss-Thompson, Owinda. “The Nonverbal Dilemma”. Journal of Learning Disabilities 1985.
  5. Rourke, Byron. “Nonverbal Learning Disabilities: Development of the Syndrome and the Model”. News & Events (LDA Nova Scotia), February 1997.