What I Wish Others Understood About Nonverbal Learning Disability


When I was diagnosed with nonverbal learning disabilities, I was living in a youth psychiatric ward due to suicidal ideation. Everything was confusing me; I felt drowned by life itself. For my first 18 years, I had taken in all aspects of the world with alternative comprehension. This was not comprehended.

Nonverbal learning disabilities are still widely unknown, but it it is a disability that can alter your entire perception and experienced reality of the world. It is not outwardly apparent, and those with it are often overlooked and can easily feel lost without proper help.

I never knew there were reasons that could explain why I struggle. But even before my diagnosis, I identified what I thought might be a difference. Without access to help, research or a wide enough recognition of NVLD’s existence, I had no hope of finding an answer of any kind.

NVLD can create communication barriers — with others, and most frustratingly, within yourself. Because I lived for so long with social and emotional differences I couldn’t understand, and wasn’t physically able to communicate, I’ve always had anxiety, and I developed depression at a very young age.

At 17, I wrote the following about my confusion. I wrote it few months before being admitted into a psychiatric ward, and a few months before being diagnosed with NVLD.

Symptoms of depression often list a poignant tendency toward slow melancholy. I can make sense of that as a truth I’ve encountered, but I find what adds the heaviest struggle to my days is compressed and fluttering fear. A general fear for life is just part of this condition of being me. It is very hard to want to live when anything containing excitement and life causes a flooding overflow of incapability. I find the levels rise in response to more and more. How can I be “too” excited? How can I feel oncoming combustion from what should make me happy?

And what confuses me most is — I’m not even happy, not even excited, and not currently living a lively life. And yet I instantly back away from anything of interest to me. Stories I know I’ll like, activities I know appeal to me — everything within me tells me that by approaching any closer, I’ll spoil it all. I often notice it with subjects built upon skill. I feel I’ll never know enough to succeed in the way I’d wish to, and can’t bring myself to practice or study. I feel there is too much I don’t know, and a constantly growing amount that I can never know. It all rushes around in a painful, shocking kind of electric excitement, and instantly I want out of it all. My general intake overflows and it all seems too far away, too unattainable, too painful to attempt to grasp and comprehend.

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Why? Why does life promote such fear? I thought I valued learning and joy and embraced the open possibilities life brings. But these are the very things that drown me. I heard about an analogy used to visualize anxiety; it was to think of a cup holding water as a level of anxiety. Everyone has a cup, but everyone’s water level is different. Some people’s levels start higher up due to a chemical imbalance — an anxiety disorder. These individuals also find their levels increase faster than others. Some anxiety-inducing situations leave a lasting effect; this could alter anyone’s resting level and make them more susceptible to overflow.

I feel like what I’m experiencing is a constant state of “filled to the brim.” Filled to the brim with anxiety, with stimuli, with life. My cup is ready to pour over at the appearance of anything “extra” — good or bad. Too much is too much. I often hear the advice “listen to your heart.” But I think what my heart wants is some silence. When I listen to my heart it says everything is too loud, it says it is too tired and it says it would be nice to be able to stop.

I was so confused by my confusion. Now, after rigorous testing, I know there’s a name and reason behind the alternative process my brain undertakes when attempting to understand, analyze or merely passively experience. It’s easy to see now that my whole written reflection and confusion about confusion was my way of depicting the maze my unidentified learning disability had created for me.

A nonverbal learning disability is primarily characterized by a large discrepancy between verbal and nonverbal skills. This combination creates comprehension challenges because the brain can’t communicate with itself in a timely manner; it’s processing information at two different speeds. For me, it’s two very different speeds. My verbal skills listed in the 99th percentile, my non verbal ones in the 12th. Those numbers were the concrete proof I had to indicate a reason why I always struggle to interpret myself and my surroundings. The verbal part of my brain that depicts truth through language is unable to work collaboratively with nonverbal spatial and visual intake.

Because the discrepancy is such a drastic one, it affects my working memory. Learning this information was a really important part of finding an answer. Working memory was described to me as a shelf your brain uses to place current information it is processing and comparing. Because my brain goes at two very different speeds, this shelf is extremely small. It has, say, 3 spaces instead of 15. It means my verbal skills can’t work to their potential and get very tired and frustrated attempting to cross-analyze with what they expect should be there, but isn’t because the nonverbal equivalent isn’t there to hold up its end. It is the ultimate recipe for instant overflow.

I live in constant fear of overflow. It’s not comparable to the definition of “overwhelm;” it feels like a bursting flame of frustration and hopelessness. It arises whenever I need to handle more items than I can hold on my shelf — emotional, constructional, analytical, social. All at once I identify more circuits of understanding than my shelf can hold, and at the same time, I know I can’t even hope to untangle them into an order. The overflow is a drowning breathlessness from the prospect of connecting it all, but running out of energy and air before being able to start laying it out. It is wanting to die because of life; it is suffocation because of breathing.

In the past year, I’ve seen how crucial communication can be. When mixed with mental illness, a lack of communication skills can be life-threatening. Because of NVLD, I sat in complete silence with every counselor I ever had. I experienced that same overflow of information I was unable to process. Now that I know I have NVLD, it makes sense that the process of interpreting nonverbal emotions into a verbal structure is one of the hardest things for me.

NVLD deserves research and wider awareness. NVLD no matter what support is available to you, if you can’t communicate, you have no choice but to live trapped in solitary isolation. NVLD research matters because it’s a disability that can cause a fear of living while simultaneously creating an inability to communicate. NVLD matters because it is a disability that can affect the entire outlook and world experience of those who have it. With more knowledge, I’m sure this experience could be made into a better one, rather than a harsher one.

My hope is that one day, this disability will be more widely recognized, and kids who see things as I did will be given help and an explanation.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or text “START” to 741-741.

This story was originally written for The NVLD Project.

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