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Why It's Important to Recognize Nonverbal Learning Disability as a Diagnosis

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Picture this: you meet a person who’s an excellent speaker at a presentation. However, when you go and speak to him (or her, or them) in person, he appears rather awkward (especially when talking to more than one person at a time), doesn’t always make eye contact, and seems to be lacking some conversation skill that comes naturally to almost everyone else — though you can’t quite figure out what that is.

You’re curious, so you go home and do an internet search. What’s the first named condition that comes up? Probably autism. However, there’s a lot more to autism than challenges with social skills  and, furthermore, autism is not the only neurodevelopmental condition that can make socializing difficult.

Another common, though less well-known condition that can make someone appear like the person I’ve described above, is nonverbal learning disability (NVLD). This type of learning disability makes learning anything that’s not verbal much more challenging than normal.

So, why do I believe that recognizing NVLD is important?

Because, at least in some cases, it represents a more holistic view of the strengths and struggles of an individual than an autism diagnosis, which in my opinion really only specifies two challenging areas (social/communication and restricted/repetitive behaviors), and no areas of strengths.

In my case, yes, I do find social situations more challenging than most people do (though that doesn’t mean I avoid them), and I did have considerable difficulty with transitions when I was younger, but there’s much more to my life than that.

Another challenging area for me is visual spatial processing. In other words, I take longer than most people to understand what I see, which makes judging the speed and distance of oncoming cars (i.e. when making a left turn) very difficult. Transferring numbers and letters to and from paper accurately is also a challenge, especially if I don’t (or can’t) call them out loud as I am doing the transfer (and yes, making constant copy transfer errors in maths was really frustrating growing up, especially because I didn’t know why).

In fact, the more I think about it, I believe that my social difficulties are caused by my slow speed of visual processing. I can understand auditory nonverbal cues fairly well, such as the tone of a person’s voice, but I have a hard time when it comes to reading somebody’s facial cues, and as for recognizing people by their faces…forget it. Simply not happening.

My greatest strengths are in scientific work, languages, and understanding how things work. I have won multiple awards for the research in organic chemistry that I have done over the course of my undergraduate degree. I can speak, read, and write in English, French, and German fluently, and I have been told by many people that I am a great storyteller, whether that be in written form or in spoken form. Finally, I can look at most pieces of machinery and (by talking to myself, aloud or not) figure out what every component inside it does — I can even do this for complicated natural systems, such as when tracking hurricanes.

This profile of strengths and challenges I face in my everyday life is well explained by an NVLD diagnosis (which I am pursuing), but a lot harder to explain using a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (which I currently have — to be specific, Asperger’s syndrome).

I am sure that I am not the only one with these gifts and challenges, so therefore, I believe strongly that the autism label shouldn’t be used if NVLD would explain a person’s behavior more accurately.

Photo submitted by contributor.

Originally published: April 7, 2020
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