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The Challenges Tone of Voice Presents for Students With a Nonverbal Learning Disability

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Growing up with a nonverbal learning disability (NVLD) brings multiple challenges. Along with weak spatial skills and deficient gross motor skills, one of the forgotten yet very real deficits is understanding and using the proper tone of voice. It can make social situations and school quite difficult; sometimes you use the wrong tone of voice or misunderstand others’ tone of voice causing you to react inappropriately.

For example, if a teacher says there are five minutes remaining when taking a test in a firm voice, or if a teacher asks if you have finished the review packet in a non-threatening tone of voice, you may think they are angry with you for going too slow or not finishing the packet. The student with a NVLD may not accurately interpret the tone which the questions were asked, and may respond inappropriately.

It can also be hard to understand if a classmate is using humor, or is attempting to tease you while interacting in class. This is often the hardest to cope with as the person picks up on your misunderstanding, and choses to continue the teasing outside of adult supervision. Those types of situations can have a major effect on your self-esteem, and when you finally begin to understand the tone difference it may have been too late. Individuals with this deficit also struggle often with the appropriate level of volume when they speak. Working on group projects in quiet places like libraries can be hard as people with a NVLD may not be able to whisper, and therefore might become an annoyance to those around them. Hanging out with peers can be dificult too. For instance, you may answer them like they are across the room when in fact  you are right next to them. This can lead to hurtful jokes like, “Are you deaf?” Regretfully communication challenges like this are all too real for many students with a NVLD.

Not realizing how to control your tone of voice can impact your ability to create friendships outside of school too. In my case, my closest friend was so kind and caring; however she still found it very difficult to be around me at times because I could be very loud and I didn’t always understand the messages she was sending. Similar situations like this occur quite often for those with a NVLD and others with similar disabilities.

But there are treatments available to help NVLD students who have difficulty with tone of voice.

One of the first treatments to help overcome these deficits is speech therapy. During therapy the therapist can use many different techniques including direct conversation, or playing an educational game. Children often get excited or nervous in social situations and helping them learn using these techniques seem to be very effective. Each type allows the students to practice keeping the tone of voice at the right level of delivery. During these sessions speech therapists sometimes will record a student so they can hear how loud they are speaking. Understandingly this can be hard to listen to, but it can be very effective in helping those with a NVLD control their volume. In addition to practicing the right tone of voice, a speech therapist can also help the student handle constructive criticism when being corrected about their tone.

While speech therapy is one option, some people choose to use school counseling as a treatment as well. It may seem like a different technique, but it can be very helpful. In addition to working on controlling tone of voice and other situations connected to a NVLD, a student can also have their personal life issues addressed as well. The safe and supportive environment of a school counselor provides a great outlet to make exceptional growth in all areas.

In my personal experience, people with this deficit feel  less stigmatized because they see typical developing students heading to the school counselor’s office as well. Both speech therapy and counseling are exceptionally important because understanding and using the right tone of voice is vital for each situation in life.
I addressed my tone deficit in speech therapy and later indirectly in counseling. I remember being in speech as a teenager. I was beyond difficult, always denying the need for it. My speech therapist was so supportive and told me I wasn’t there yet to be declassified, and that if I was she would give me study hall time to work on school work. During each session we engaged in conversation and practiced  phrases with the correct sound and tones. The hardest part for me was when she corrected me. It made me feel stupid, although I know this wasn’t true. Gradually I learned how to accept corrections which made communicating with my teachers easier. Later on I switched to counseling as both my speech therapist and my parents believed this was a better fit so other needs could be addressed too. Through each counseling session my counselor asked questions related to my school and home life which I would have to answer in the right tone. It was certainly tricky, but during each session I made great strides while learning how to believe in myself more. In my personal experience both services were so important. I understood that speech therapy was necessary at first so I could  learn coping skills before I switched to a different support such as counseling.

As you read this, you probably think it seems very difficult to overcome and cope with the challenges I described, but with dedication and the right treatments you can make great strides. Utilizing the many treatment options including speech therapy and counseling, can be very effective for NVLD students. I know for me working with my speech therapist and showing up to my counselors office for other reasons made all the difference in the world. I truly believe with dedication and acceptance you can experience the same outcome.

Photo credit: AndreaObzerova/Getty Images

Originally published: November 9, 2019
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