Non-verbal learning disorder

Expert Stories | Ms. Dinuusha Wickremesekera, Lecturer In Psychology

Learning is a continuous process that begins from the day we are born. We learn during the course of our physical development, social and emotional development, language acquisition and communication, and cognitive development. A child's development is tested in the following specific areas of learning: literacy, mathematical skills, understanding the world and expressive arts and design.

A person might have changes in brain structure and or functioning that would cause differences in how information is processed which result in difficulties in acquiring and / or improving skills in one or more of the above learning areas. We classify such cases as learning disorders. There are many different types of learning disorders and it is important to keep in mind that if a child or adult has a learning disorder it doesn’t mean that the level of intelligence is lower or for that matter that there is a lack of motivation. What it means is that because of the differences in processing the individual would have difficulties in things we take for granted like knowing right from the left, clumsiness due to poor physical coordination, letter reversals when reading, difficulties in recognizing patterns, understanding the underlying of hidden meaning that is so common during social communication, staying organized and completing a task at hand and time management.

Learning disorders will continue through one’s life, sometimes lessening in intensity with age but with early intervention which includes extra help and specialized instructions based on an understanding of the strengths and challenges faced – there will be very positive changes. Non-verbal learning disorders relates to communication and our ability to communicate. When we converse with someone, we use two types of communication: verbal and non-verbal communication. It is estimated the approximately 60% of communication is based on non-verbal cues like the tone and pitch of voice, emotional expressions etc.

When an individual has a non-verbal learning disorder these non-verbal cues are missed, resulting in much of the meaning lost, making it more difficult to respond with relevance to what was stated. This results in anxiety and this anxiety is addressed by masking the lack of understanding with a strength – strong verbal communication. Individuals with non-verbal learning disorders tend to acquire language skills fast and also use it well, and sometimes to dominate conversations. A person with non-verbal learning disorder would dominate a conversation and also interrupt another mid-sentence to mask the problems experienced in processing meaning.

Non-verbal learning disorder is known to affect both boys and girls, and there is some evidence that it runs in families. Nonverbal learning disorder affects the right hemisphere of the brain and the key areas affected include – physical coordination, social interaction, problem-solving, organizing thoughts and planning.

The symptoms tend to vary from person to person.

Some of the more common symptoms are:

  • Trouble recognizing non-verbal cues
  • Early speech and language acquisition
  • Poor coordination, so clumsiness
  • Poor fine motor skills
  • A tendency to always ask questions – sometimes even repeating
  • Visual-spatial difficulties – so there will be bumping into things
  • A tendency to take things literally
  • Difficulty coping with change
  • Trouble following multiple-step instructions
  • Can’t see the big picture

Please keep in mind that having one or two of these symptoms doesn’t mean that you have nonverbal learning disorder – it needs to be properly diagnosed by a qualified mental health professional with observation over at least six months prior to diagnosis.

Non-verbal learning disorders are particularly problematic during puberty with increased social anxieties and also more problems in schools as a higher level comprehension is required.

What is important to understand is that the precocious child who talks a lot and interrupts – if he or she has non-verbal learning disorder is not being rude as much as s/he is processing the interaction in the way he or she knows how. Helping this child with gentle kindness and specific strategies to maximize the strengths and work through challenges would result in positive changes.