Nonverbal learning disabilities
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By Anastasia Hubbard, M.S. , Brenda Smith Myles, Ph.D.
What type of professional is qualified to identify NLD, and what type of testing is used?
The "diagnosis" of NLD is normally made by neuropsychologists and clinical psychologists. Such professionals assess NLD using a battery of tests that cover abilities such as:
- motor and psychomotor
- auditory and visual attention/memory
- problem solving
- academic achievement
- personality/adaptive behavior
NLD is difficult to diagnose because its manifestations change significantly depending on the child's age. In general, the deficits involved in NLD get worse as the child gets older. For example, a preschooler with NLD may have exceptional verbal skills and speak like a little adult. During his younger years, the challenges a student with NLD faces are often overlooked because of his high intelligence level and verbal strength.2 As the child matures and encounters school work and social situations that require abilities such as abstract thinking and nonverbal communication, his deficits in those areas will become more apparent and problematic.
Parents tell us they get conflicting information about NLD from educators and other professionals. Is there consensus among professionals regarding the validity of NLD as a syndrome?
Brenda Smith Myles explains, "One reason why parents receive mixed messages about the existence of NLD is the fact that the disorder is viewed very differently by the psychological and education communities. At this time, very few schools will acknowledge that a child has NLD based on neuropsychological test results alone. However, if standardized testing reveals a discrepancy between the child's IQ and his academic performance, some schools will refer the student for special education services."
How might having NLD affect a child's academic performance?
Students thought to have NLD generally do well in areas that relate to concrete thinking but have difficulty in areas that relate to abstract thinking. The research done to date has yet to prove how the cognitive limitations of NLD directly impact a child's academic performance. Nevertheless, consider how having NLD might apply to math, reading, and conceptual learning.
- It may be difficult for a child with NLD to understand math concepts and solve problems, but he may have no trouble applying a mathematical formula which he has been explicitly taught. Additionally, due to his poor spatial-organization ability, he may have difficulty aligning problems on a page to solve them correctly.
- With regard to reading, a student with NLD may have strong word decoding skills, but may experience difficulty with reading comprehension, as he may miss inferences, have difficulty visualizing a story, and may not see the "big picture."
- Children with NLD also experience difficulty when information on assignments and tests is not presented in the exact format in which it was taught. For example, if a child with NLD learned about neighborhoods in social studies using a matching format he may have trouble answering true/false questions about the same information.