The Learning Disability You May Not Have Heard Of
I have a learning disability — a few actually — including one you may have never heard of. It is recognized by most neuropsychologists and yet it is controversial because it does not exist in the DSM-5: nonverbal learning disability (NVLD/NLD).
The name is often misleading to the average person. One may see the word “nonverbal” and assume it means the individual does not speak. This is often quite the contrary. Those with NVLD can be quite talkative; the reason behind the name is because NVLDers struggle with understanding nonverbal communication, a hallmark of the learning disability.
But who am I to say all of this? I have learned a lot about nonverbal learning disability this past year because I was diagnosed with this condition not so long ago, as a 26-year-old. I have joined Facebook groups and read what I can find online, receiving most of my information firsthand from others who share a diagnosis of NVLD with me.
Unfortunately, there is not enough information out there about NVLD, and that is why I’ve decided to write this.
So… what exactly makes up a nonverbal learning disability diagnosis?
While I personally believe it is OK to self-diagnose if one identifies with the traits and characteristics (as is also believed in the Autistic community), what leads to a clinical diagnosis by a neuropsychologist is an IQ test. The test results must include a decent discrepancy between the Verbal IQ and Performance IQ with overall average (or higher) intelligence. The key is not the numbers themselves but rather the obvious gaps between the two types of intelligence.
My Verbal IQ is above average while my Performance IQ is low average, including a very low processing speed. But Kelly, you may ask, what does all of this actually mean?
Living with NVLD, I have had challenges from the beginning…
I was born 10 weeks premature, something that may (will never know for sure) have contributed to my developmental disabilities, including nonverbal learning disability. I did not have any extensive evaluations in early childhood. I was simply, along with my twin sister, held back in preschool by a year and considered mildly developmentally delayed.
I have always struggled with my fine motor skills, including use of scissors, holding a pen, handwriting, drawing (this is why I stick to abstract art rather than neat sketches!), and even tying my shoes (I rocked those Sketchers velcro shoes until I was 12, and there’s nothing wrong with that). I have never been athletic or coordinated. Learning dance steps and physical movements is very awkward and challenging for me. I also run into walls sometimes — I remember in college once being called out for being really drunk, when in reality, I was actually sober; I laughed, seeing how my lack of coordination might come off as drunken clumsiness. I was even nicknamed “the spiller” in ninth grade by my best friend’s mom, as I spilled every drink or bowl full of liquid that entered my hands.
Visual-Spatial Processing and Math Challenges
My visual-spatial processing and math skills are not the strongest thanks to NVLD and my unique wiring. I have consistently had challenges, and subsequent anxiety, in any and every math class (I also have a math-specific learning disability called dyscalculia). Geometry was and is particularly for me because of NVLD as well as learning how to read an analog clock — this still isn’t easy for me at 26! Other things affected by my issues with visual-spatial processing can be hard to explain as I’ve never seen the world any other way. I have challenges with driving and parking my car, reading maps — I get lost anywhere and everywhere, to the point of comedy — and remembering and locating things I see. I also have what I refer to as a mild sort of facial blindness — I really do not remember or recognize faces easily. I remember at my first job out of college, weeks into working the position, I still could not remember or tell apart some of the other staff members nor remember basic instructions. This was embarrassing and I had no words to describe why I was struggling. With that, my overall processing speed is slow, regardless of whether it is auditory or visual-spatial.
Executive function issues are typically associated with ADHD and autism, but can also come with other conditions like PTSD, OCD, depression, and learning disabilities like NVLD. For me, this means trouble focusing/following along in conversations, constant disorganization — both internally and externally, emotion regulation difficulties, problems with shifting focus, issues dealing with changes and planning, time blindness, working memory deficits, having a hard time starting tasks and completing them, and lastly, I have a low frustration tolerance. In summary, this has made school and in my case, especially jobs, a challenge. However, I persevere, particularly as I go through my master’s degree in creative writing (with accommodations and therapy, which also help!).
Social challenges with nonverbal learning disability, like the other faces of the disability, exist on a spectrum or pie chart, however you’d like to look at it. For me, upon receiving my initial diagnosis, I scoffed, thinking I had no social issues.
Well… then I really reflected and developed some more self-awareness in therapy, only to realize that I do; it is simply more subtle than I had thought could fit the diagnosis. In my case, this includes life-long issues with understanding sarcasm, interrupting others, trouble following in conversations, passionate and endless talks about my hyper fixations or “special interests,” not always being the best listener… and did I mention excessive talking?! And last but not least, I grew up feeling awkward. Different. Labeled as quirky and unique. This may not all be because of NVLD, but I feel it may be part of the picture.
Connecting With Others Who Live With NVLD
Nonverbal learning disability deserves more awareness. It needs more attention for the children and teens being diagnosed and accommodated, as well as the adults who find out later in life why they have struggled for so long. It is not uncommon to also have anxiety and depression with NVLD, as well as ADHD, other learning disabilities, and in some cases, NVLDers are Autistic. I want to say that this is simply what I’ve learned from others with NVLD plus my own experiences, and that meeting one person with NVLD is meeting only one person with NVLD, so never stereotype and assume, especially when someone tells you they have a hidden disability.
If you have NVLD, please check out the group I have created here on The Mighty — it is new, so not a lot happening just yet, but I am hoping this community can grow.
Getty image by Julia Garan.