Language-Based Learning Disability and Non-Verbal Learning Disability: What’s in a Name?

It’s towards the end of the semester, and a Grade 9 student approaches you for help.  The student, Daria, is looking anxious and teary-eyed, and blurts out “I’m not getting math and just hating school.” What you’ve also learned is that Daria is an A student, has no history of behavioural or psychiatric issues, yet is feeling overwhelmed by high-school life.  In a sense, you are surprised to see Daria needing much assistance at all.  Is she just a quirky kid who needs time to mature emotionally? Does she have a learning problem in the area of mathematics? Daria may very well have a learning disability…though not one that immediately comes to mind to most educators.

When school administrators use the term learning disability (LD, for short), problems that generally come to mind are those related to reading, mathematics, and writing. Identifying a student with an LD requires noting a discrepancy between strong, or at minimum, average-level, intellectual capacity and poor academic performance in one or more of these areas. Having an LD means that the student – despite being quick and smart in everyday life – has a processing deficit that impairs his ability to read text material, execute arithmetic problems, and/or write essays using proper grammar and spelling.  According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), a learning disorder is a type of neurodevelopmental disorder, which means that it is present at the beginning of life and presumed to have a genetic origin.  LDs in reading, written expression and mathematics are typically assessed in school-aged children, when the curriculum demands good reading, writing and math knowledge, and when the teacher or parent actually begins to notice struggles in a seemingly bright child.

But there is a different type of LD that is far less detected during the childhood years, is less common than so-called language-based learning disabilities, and adversely affects (older) students in a profound way.  It is usually recognized during the onset of secondary education when transitions are inevitable and organizational skills and social connections are vital.  Non-Verbal Learning Disability (abbreviated NVLD) was branded by Dr. Byron Rourke from the University of Windsor (Ontario) who reported on a smallish group of students with a sizeable gap between their verbal IQ and their performance IQ (i.e., visuospatial intellectual abilities).  These students had a constellation of features that set them apart from those with more typical LDs.  Their speech was found to be eloquent, having well-developed vocabulary.  On the downside, they exhibited motoric problems (e.g., poor balance, impoverished handwriting), poor visual-spatial processing and organizational skills, and under-developed social interaction skills.  Because such non-verbal functions are controlled by the right cerebral hemisphere, Dr. Rourke argued that NVLD is a neurological disorder of the right hemisphere. Rather than it being hereditary in nature, NVLD is thought to be caused by early trauma during brain development or possibly by a head injury sustained after birth.

So here we have a clear difference between language-based learning disabilities (implicating the left hemisphere of the brain) and rare, non-verbal learning disabilities (involving the right hemisphere).  When we revisit the excerpt at the beginning, it is reasonable to hypothesize that Daria’s difficulties reflect a non-verbal learning disability.  With good verbal skills and academic performance, it is no wonder one might be confused about the source of her problem.  After all, people with NVLD go unnoticed for years, presumably because their strong verbal capabilities align so well with our concept of intelligence.  However, continue to converse with Daria and she might have provided other clues that the NVLD is getting in the way of school life.  For arguments sake, let’s say Daria presented with fleeting eye contact and spoke with a dull monotone.  She mentioned being teased for bumping into students in the hallway and feeling embarrassed by her social awkwardness.  You figured out that making friends is not easy, particularly because Daria is challenged by subtle non-verbal cues (gestures, facial expressions), sarcasm, double meanings and the telling of “white lies.”  Also, the symbolism she lacks made English novel study too onerous and non-enjoyable.  And, academic coursework in general was proving difficult to manage given her poor organizational and time management skills.

Mental health research has informed us that those who suffer from a non-verbal learning disability often experience social isolation and distress from an overstimulating environment.  Adolescents with NVLD can develop debilitating (social) anxiety as well. They may see a steady decline in school grades, which contributes to ongoing worry and self-doubt.  According to Dr. Rourke, young people with NVLD are also at risk of developing clinical depression during adult life.  These issues beg the question as to how a student like Daria can be assisted so as to improve her academic functioning, her social connections, and importantly, her emotional health.

While NVLD may be hard to detect in articulate students, there are diverse ways that you can help.[1]  You may wish to make a referral to a mental health professional who can teach positive social skills via role playing and practice.  One-to-one counselling or talk therapy might be of benefit as well for teens with depressed mood and anxiety. Resources for NVLD within the school setting will depend on the school board.  Many schools implement peer support or tutors in academic courses like English and Math.  Some schools offer a specialized half-credit, ‘learning strategies’ course designed to manage a person’s schedule and improve organizational skills.  An individualized education plan (IEP) that applies scribing, handouts, and the use of assistive technology might be desirable where there are occupational therapy needs, i.e., fine motor and visual-motor integration problems.  Let me add that adolescents with social communication deficits are extremely vulnerable to mocking and bullying by their peers. This is especially true during the early high school years when young, immature teenagers are trying to find an identity for themselves while also trying to fit in. Therefore, it is imperative to keep a watchful eye for hurtful reactions and to bring forth any victimization to the attention of your leader.  Finally, as a conduit for positive social relationships, you might search for an “accepting peer” who can make contact during lunch breaks and after school. For those who say they have a few friendships already, use your skills to bring together their buddy in the same class whenever possible. 

Students with non-verbal learning disability deserve any supports available to help with a range of deficits, i.e., motor, visual-spatial, and social skills. It is true that resources for students with a non-verbal disability are not as plentiful nor as obvious as those aimed for students with a language-based learning disability.  That being the case, let us applaud counsellors, support staff, and senior administrators who find creative and effective ways to maximize students’ success on all of these fronts.

People with NVLD are thought to resemble those diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) because of the overlap in features. For this reason, students with NVLD can profit from some of the same strategies that have been implemented for students with ASD.  However, it is important to highlight that the presentation of NVLD is not identical to ASD, with ASD alone being a neurodevelopmental disorder.

Author Bio: Sybil Geldart is an associate professor of psychology at Wilfrid Laurier University (Ontario), with research interests broadly based in developmental psychology, clinical psychology and (occupational) health. She typically teaches courses in psychopathology, clinical psychology, and exceptionalities during childhood and adolescence. Sybil is also a registered psychologist, and has a part-time clinical practice in the city of Brantford where she provides assessment and counselling to children, youth, and adults.