Woman with marker leaning head against wall.

What I Wish People Understood About Nonverbal Learning Disabilities


I have had to deal with a nonverbal learning disability my whole life. It has not been easy, but I am a glorious survivor!

Through a career encompassing two Master’s degrees in Special Education, School Leadership, and School Administration, and being an actual teacher of special education classes, I have been pressing to educate society. In my deepest heart I believe the public should be aware of what I, and others like me, need to do to succeed in a world of people who don’t know and often, don’t seem to care about our condition.

But I care. In fact, my very life depends on you, my reader. I’m not kidding. I’m not exaggerating. In my experience, you — my reader — and even doctors, psychologists and psychiatrists know very little about nonverbal learning syndrome. That may be because a person who has a nonverbal learning disability does not have symptoms that are directly observable to the human eye — but make no mistake, the symptoms are there.

First of all, a syndrome is a group of symptoms and not just one symptom. I’m not talking about physical symptoms you can see — and that makes it even harder for me. I don’t look disabled, and when I begin to talk, my speech is just fine, so it takes a little while ’till you begin to sense I am different in some way — but still, you’re not sure because I look OK. Soon, it starts: I may say something that’s a little off-putting to you even though I don’t mean to do that.

I almost always have difficulties communicating with others both orally, and in a warm and natural way. Too many people think my reactions are not appropriate for me to ignore it. For example, I may actually begin to cry when something you say reminds me of a sad thing in my own life. Or I may interrupt you in a way others think is rude, but it’s usually because I really don’t know how to join a group conversation.

Did you know experts agree that 65 percent of all communication is done nonverbally and only 35 percent is done verbally? For example, some people with a nonverbal learning disability can demonstrate a high level of expressing themselves orally, but cannot read into others’ cues. That’s me! Call it a verbal problem or a nonverbal problem — the expression of words is almost always accompanied by nonverbal cues… and that’s hard, often impossible to get, for someone like me who owns the syndrome.

If someone says something sarcastically, she usually does things with her eyes and face that say she’s being sarcastic and doesn’t really mean what she’s saying. But I hear only her words — I can’t read her eyes or face. So I totally miss her true meaning. Even today, when I go to my own mom’s house and I see her sitting there with her eyes closed, it’s difficult for me to decide if she’s just resting, if she’s bored or if she’s angry. I know my mother very well, but I can’t read her unless she tells me what she’s feeling.

Another symptom I have is eye/hand coordination problems. Eye/hand coordination differs from person to person with nonverbal learning disabilities. For example, some of us cannot drive, but others can. I physically know how to drive, and I see well, but I have a poor hand grasp onto the steering wheel. If I can’t firmly hold the wheel, I’m a menace on the road. I also don’t have the memory to put together all the directions I need to drive in an unfamiliar place.

I went to sleep-away camp when I was little. I was always the last person called to join a sports team because I could not kick a soccer ball or swing a bat to hit a ball. I wished with all my heart I’d connect with that ball, but wishing never helped.

In kindergarten, my teacher came to visit my mother in our home, which was unheard of at that time. She told my mom I could not cut along a line with a pair of scissors or color within the lines (a common symptom of my problem). I also had a difficult time learning how to tie my shoelaces — but today, I can do that. I still have terrible trouble using a scissors to cut, though. But today I can say, “So what?”

My nonverbal disability expresses itself in something called dysgraphia — problems with writing skills. Dysgraphia does not go away and is something I have to live with for the rest of my life. I can hardly take notes in a class because my handwriting is very large and clumsy. Computers are a godsend, but I don’t always have access to a computer. I have difficulty with fine and gross motor skills, and I always have a frustrating time writing letters or even just choosing the correct size of letters to fit in a given space.

If I go someplace like to a doctor’s office or to a job opportunity and I’m asked to fill in an application on the spot, I’m in trouble. I will try to ask someone to be my scribe because the dysgraphia prevents me from giving the information I need to give in the small, allotted space of an application. I try to explain to people in charge that it isn’t because I don’t have the content they need, but that I have to write down the asked-for information at a slower speed from everyone else. No one usually understands. When I tell those in charge that the way I write may even make it impossible for them to read my application, they look at me blankly. If only society understood that when I have to ask for a scribe in these situations and am told, “You have to fill out the application by yourself like everyone else,” I am being treated unfairly. And, when I finally turn in my self-completed application, I am usually told it’s unreadable.

Grammar and spelling? I can be a great speller, but when my motor issues come into play, and the goal is for me to write my words down in a timely manner, I will make errors. People who have non-verbal learning disabilities may also make more grammar errors when writing, because our brains work slower than other people’s brains when it comes to writing down ideas. I may be able to read out loud with strong verbal expressions of what I’m reading, but I have difficulty trying to process it at the same time. Throughout high school and college, and even in graduate school I got an A for content, but I was always criticized on poor grammar and careless spelling. When I was awarded my first computer grant 25 years ago, I was given software to counteract my awful grammar and spelling. Only then could I concentrate on my ideas.

This right hemispheric learning problem is not usually recognized by teachers and other professionals who may aid in a child’s or adult’s educational experiences. There are currently few resources for the problem even in many private and public agencies geared to helping people with nonverbal learning disabilities. Too many of the workers in those agencies know nothing about it, so many children and adults such as myself are labeled as having behavior or emotional problems.

Individuals living their whole lives with nonverbal learning disabilities often display poor self-images. How can we not? We’re always told we’re acting badly. Worse still, this lack of self-image itself may render poor visual recall and faulty spatial recognition. I have difficulty recognizing faces, interpreting gestures and deciphering facial expressions. I have a difficult time communicating with people in social situations, with no idea how to transition into conversations. Right-to-left orientation problems, memory and coordination difficulties cause me stress. Up until recently, I could never remember my cell phone number, until my aging mother wrote it on a piece of paper to paste to the back of my phone.

I could never – and still can’t – visualize images or verbalize about something I have not personally seen. Or, I may focus on details of what I have seen but often fail to grasp the total picture. I can recall distinct details of objects, but am usually unable to identify that item by its name. For instance, I remember going to Canada at the age of 6, and I saw, for the first time, a cow roaming in front of our cabin! I was so excited, but when I was trying to tell my mom what I saw just a short time later, I remembered it had large black spots, it was very large and it had spigots where milk came out. It took me over 20 minutes to recall the word cow.

Here’s my hardest thing to cope with. This lack of self-image and difficulty in identifying objects also prevents me from being able to maintain friendships with peers my age. I can’t remember faces. I was usually the last person called for a team. My own physical clumsiness didn’t help.
I was almost never given an opportunity to practice with my peers. Imagine always being rejected — and never told why. This has given me great sadness and grief my entire life. I just don’t get why I don’t have friends.

I usually learn by repetition. While I seem confused at times, I have a high level of intelligence and I understand receptive and expressive language — believe me! But issues with social communication are often brought on by misunderstanding body language and tone in other people’s voices. When growing up with nonverbal learning disabilities, I was able to process the words an individual was saying, but I had a difficult time comprehending non-verbal cues. I asked and asked others to explain better. They didn’t. Mostly, I was told, “You talk too much.”
I can’t count how many times I was told I talk too much!

People with my disability often bump into others easily when walking and have an increased risk of falling. When very young, I had severe issues climbing up on jungle gyms. It may sound insignificant, but believe me, when every other kid was climbing up a jungle gym, and I couldn’t, it was torture. I never forgot it.

I was always eager to help others, and once I fell down a flight of stairs at the age of 5 carrying chairs for someone. I had to wear a cast on my knee for two months. To this day I still cannot walk down stairs left/right or with any speed, and I have heard people call out “slow poke” on subway stairs or “Lady, move faster!” when I am trying to balance myself so I won’t fall.

I always have a difficult time placing or understanding written responses on a sheet of paper. For example, if I have to go to a place for the first time, even if someone explains how to do it, even if someone writes down the directions, even if I myself have written down the directions, I get lost. I usually find a way to and from a given location by identifying markers which will allow me to place a set of directions in my verbal memory. For example, my therapist’s office is about a block and a half from the receptionist desk in a large office building. So I know I must ride up to the 17th floor, past the receptionist desk, look for the area where the mail boxes are. At the end of the long mailbox area, I turn in the same direction as my left hand where I place my watch when I get up in the morning… and I’m there.

About that watch — a true short story. When I was in the third grade, I was doing phenomenally well because of an outstanding teacher. My mom gave me a present after I received a good report card. On my left hand, she placed her gift — my first watch with numbers I could read! She said to me, “Remember for the rest of your life, when you place any watch on this hand after you get up in the morning, this is your left hand. And, if you have to go left, follow that hand. If you have to go right, go in the opposite direction.” I remember this every morning when I get up, as if I was back in the third grade and my mom woke me up and placed a watch on my arm for the very first time.

The last issues that society almost always fails to understand when it comes to dealing with a nonverbal learning syndrome are the social situations involving awareness and social judgment. I usually fail to perceive and interpret social interactions accurately. I was never taught the correct way of processing those cues when I was younger. Maybe the adults in my life just didn’t know how to teach that. I have difficulty interpreting gestures and deciphering or reading facial expressions.

Take gestures: if I’m sitting at a table, and someone is tapping on the table with her fingers because she’s irritated, instead of searching for the true source of her irritation, I become so distracted by the noise her fingers are making, I can think of nothing else. And then I say something inappropriate she will take in the wrong way. Remember, verbal expression is only 35 percent of the conversation process. I’m usually missing out on the other 65 percent which is non-verbal expression. Individuals with a nonverbal learning disability almost always have difficulty with perceptual cues throughout the flow of a conversation, which hinders them in a give-and-take process.

What happens? I’m often told not only that I’m slow-moving, but that I am also discourteous, immature, or lacking in respect for others. Even self-centered. It started in elementary school, really, when I didn’t understand what the teacher wanted and I’d call out loudly with what was on my mind. I later learned that was called impulsivity—and I know I still have a bad case of it.

As an adult with a nonverbal learning disability, I have shared with you just about all the symptoms I have had to deal with my entire life. Writing an essay like this is the first step in letting people know about the syndrome I live with and the symptoms I need to learn to deal with, even now that I’m all grown up.

Learning how this can affect college, graduate programs and employment for the disabled can help everyone else to understand what nonverbal learning disabilities are all about, and help others to help me and people like me assimilate into society. That is my aim. Selfish? Maybe.
Essential? Bet on it! I depend on you — the individual without the nonverbal learning disability — to make my way in the world. If you make the effort to understand me, oh — I’ll do you proud.

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