What is a Nonverbal Learning Disability?
Stephen Viola, Ph.D.
University of Missouri-St. Louis
Adam is 11 years old and was referred to the school psychologist because of concerns
about his limited socialization with peers and deteriorating academic performance over
the past few years. He is described as a bright youngster who loves to talk and engage in
conversations and presents almost as a pseudo-adult. But he is struggling with reading
comprehension and still has difficulties with basic math facts. He does not socialize with
the other students and remains to himself. He prefers to be with adults. One teacher
suggested that he might have Asperger Disorder.
Psychological testing revealed a verbal IQ of 120 and a performance IQ of 100 with a
full scale IQ of 109. Academic testing indicated a significant delay in mathematics. His
basic reading skills were good but he had delays in reading comprehension. Most
noticeable was that his reading fluency was extremely slow. He would take two to three
times longer to complete a reading passage than would be expected for a child his age.
Each word was read correctly and there were no concerns with phonic skills, but he just
took considerably longer to complete the tasks and this appeared to impact his
comprehension. On a spelling task, Adam was able to orally spell 10 words correctly but
when asked to write the same words, he misspelled 5 of them. Adam’s social
impairments are very similar to those of a person with Asperger Disorder.
Adam was diagnosed with a nonverbal learning disability. Special education supports
include reading support, which Adam needed in order to read lengthy texts. He did
exercises on a computer designed to increase his reading fluency. He was taught a
verbal-visual method for completing math calculations and his errors in math calculation
were greatly reduced. Adam participated in a social skills program designed to improve
his basic social skills as well as help him learn ways to develop more appropriate
relationships with peers.
There is no universally accepted definition for nonverbal learning disabilities. Rouke
(1989) defined nonverbal learning disability as a right-hempishpere dysfunction resulting
in information processing dysfunction. Information stored in the right hemisphere of the
brain is stored in a more complex structure than in the left hemisphere of the brain.
Rourke and his colleagues postulated that the NLD child has difficulty accessing this
information (Serleir-Van den Bergh, 1999). The educational literature has coined the
term nonverbal learning disability to distinguish it from learning disabilities where
language functions are primarily affected. As is the case for most neuro-developmental
disabilities, the cause is not known and is likely due to both genetic and environmental
Serelier (1999) found that approximately 10% of children identified as learning disabled
had a nonverbal learning disability while approximately 90% of children identified as
learning disabled had language based learning disabilities.
Nonverbal learning disabilities are often not detected as early as language based learning
disabilities. Jongepeir (1999) found that most children with NLD had been identified
between the ages of 10-14. Since NLD children tend to have good language skills, they
often do satisfactorily with early primary school work and begin to struggle in the later
primary grades (Rourke, Ditrich, & Young, 1973).
On measures of cognitive abilities, students with nonverbal learning disabilities do
relatively better on verbal tasks than nonverbal tasks. On the Weschler Intelligence
Scales for Children-Third Edition, researchers found that students with NLD on average
scored 15 points higher on the Verbal IQ when compared to the Performance IQ (Rourke,
Young, Flewelling, 1971). Their highest subtests were generally information and
vocabulary (Fuerst, Fisk, Rourke, 1990). These subtests are also on the new revised
version of the Weschler Scales.
On going research at the University of Missouri-St. Louis has looked at test patterns of
children with NLD on the Dyslexia Screening Test. The children tend to do fine on the
phonetic tasks but earn significantly lower scores on the fluency types of tasks. This
suggests that a deficit in fluency may be an underlying characteristics of nonverbal
Children with NLD often have good phonics and can spell well orally but have trouble
with spelling when writing. They may get a 100% on an oral spelling test but fail a
written spelling test.
When it comes to technical reading (word coding), children with NLD have difficulty
because of the limited capacity they have in making visual-spatial estimations. Analysis
of written language is a chore and is not fluid for them. Due to the fact that they have a
well-developed phonological mechanism, their technical reading does get better after
repetitious exercise. They have good memories for sounds, words, and phrases and are
capable of audible discrimination, analysis, and synthesis.
In the later years of primary school, students with NLD are able to achieve a good level
of reading, thanks to the writing of letters in relation to their sound when spoken.
Reading then becomes a routine activity (left hemisphere of the brain), and so children
with NLD often read very quickly, with little intonation or punctuation, and tend to guess
the sound of words.
Reading comprehension remains a problems for most children with NLD. Every text is
considered to be new information (right hemisphere of the brain), and reading between
the lines to understand the full meaning of a text is a problem.
With mathematics, children with NLD have difficulty visualizing a problem in order to
solve it. They can’t create representation from numbers. Because of their lack of spatial
ability, they find it hard to position the numbers especially when faced with multi-digit
numbers. Initial research results at the University of Missouri-St. Louis have found that
mathematic skills were the academic skills most significantly delayed in students with
The student with NLD often has writing that is weak because of the difficulty with
movement patterns and visual coordination. Remembering the shapes of letters (visual
memory) and the right sequence of elements that form a letter is hard for children with
NLD, who see a letter as several elements brought together and have difficulty seeing it
as a whole.
Students with NLD often have delays in speech and language development as infants.
As toddlers, children with NLD often start developing speech as a quicker pace.
Because of the NLD child’s enormous verbal output, one gets the impression that his
speech is very well developed, but when listening carefully, one notices a sense of being
very busy, uninhibited, a monotonous tone and a clear lack of substance, even though the
speech is pseudo-adult. They have difficulty in holding a story together and making it
comprehensible to the listener.
Children with NLD can perceive detail but have difficulties separating detail from the
whole of the object that is being perceived. The child might be able to describe a house
in minute detail but not know where the house is located.
Perception difficulties for NLD children are more noticeable during the second half of
primary school when more formal-operation thinking is required.
Children with NLD often learn little from experience. Every situation, even slightly
different, is perceived as a new one.
When facing new situations, the NLD child will rely on verbal memories.
The concept of time is difficult for NLD children.
Children with NLD are frequently overly sensitive to sound. Some researchers
hypothesize that this is because they primarily use their auditory sense to process
information and this becomes a heightened sense.
Visual overload is often a problem for children with NLD. They will occasionally stare
because they are visually overloaded.
Children with NLD are visually and spatially impaired in their exploration and prefer to
explore though listening and through asking many questions.
Interest in creative lessons like art and dance are limited in NLD children.
The child with NLD often lags behind in both basic coordination and finer coordination
At young ages, children with NLD will frequently avoid crossing the two sides of their
body; for example, not crossing legs or arms.
Problems with balance are common for NLD children.
NLD children often have poor posture and have difficulty maintaining posture when their
attention is focused elsewhere. For example, he forgets about posture and slumps when
eating or reading.
Many children with NLD have characteristics associated with Asperger disorder.
NLD children have difficulty recognizing their own and other people’s emotions.
Physical contact is difficult for children with NLD.
Children with NLD often appear as anxious.
Their visual-spatial and planning weaknesses have a negative impact on their social
interaction. They do not understand nonverbal reactions (signs, facial expression, body
language, the pitch of someone’s voice).
NLD children have difficulty estimating the space between themselves and other people,
both physically and psychologically.
NLD children are often very gullible. They have to make an effort to realize that people
can lie or make sarcastic remarks.
When one considers that more than 65% of human communication in nonverbal, it is
clear that NLD children miss out or misinterpret most of it.
NLD children prefer speaking with adults over peers because adults’ answers are easier
to predict than those of children. On the playground, they will frequently be around the
Children with NLD often require extensive training and repetition in order to make things
Teachers should use limited figurative speech, irony, and abstract concepts when
explaining materials to children with NLD.
Children with NLD should be shown an overview or summary prior to starting on a
Students with NLD will need extra time to complete assignments. Teachers should
consider reduced assignments that emphasize quality instead of quantify, especially in
Since these students have good language skills, they often do better reading out loud or
softly to themselves. They do better with self-talk strategies where they verbally talk
themselves through a problem or assignment.
Children with NLD frequently lose their place when reading. It is often best that the
pages not have illustrations. Placing a ruler under every line of text can be helpful.
NLD children, as a consequence of their visual-spatial weakness, do not trust the visual
appearances of a word but rather its sound. While learning how to spell, a strong
emphasis must be made on learning both through sound and visuals. Rhymes and songs
can help the NLD child remember the form and order of words.
With spelling exercises, the NLD child’s weak psychomotor coordination must be taken
into account. Copying words from the blackboard is extremely difficult. Having the
child write words several times would be extremely difficult and not effective.
Because of their weak psychomotor coordination, be sure that any use of manipulatives is
manageable. Manipulatives, like an abacus, are often difficult for NLD children.
Teachers should choose workpages with the simplest layout. The paper would have as
little color as possible as few images as possible, and more than enough space to write the
Complicated structures, such as graphs and tables, will require extensive verbal guidance.
Teachers and parents cannot just point to them and expect the NLD child to understand
For writing, a wider handwriting style can help. Special paper may be needed.
In regard to social-emotional needs, prepare the NLD child prior to social situations such
as working in groups or recess.
Training in social skills, with the emphasis on expressing emotion and the practice of
appropriate non-verbal behavior, should be a part of the program for the NLD child.
In social conflict, it may be necessary to help immediately in finding a solution and not
get too involved in a conversation situation until later.
In clinical work at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, the following programs have
been found to be effective for children with nonverbal learning disabilities.
Program Effective for improving
Taylor Reading Plus Program Reading comprehension and reading fluency
Ace Reader Program Reading fluency
Handwriting Without Tears Handwriting and visual-spatial problems
TouchMath Math calculation skills
Skillstreaming Social skills
Relationship Development Basic social skills and advanced relationship
Fuerst, D., Fisk, J.L. & Rourke, B.P. (1990). Psychosocial functioning of learning-
disabled children: Relationship between WISC verbal IQ-performance IQ discrepancies
an personality subtypes. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 58, 657-660.
Jongepeir, A.J. (1999). NLD in children. Remedial Teaching, 3, 30-33.
Rourke, B.P. (1989). Non-verbal learning disabilities. The syndrome and the model.
New York, London: The Guilford Press.
Rourke, B. P., Dietrich, D.M., & Young, G. C. (1973)., Significance of WISC verbal-
performance discrepancies for younger children with learning disabilities. Perceptual and
Motor Skills, 36, 275-282.
Rourke, B.P., Young, G.C., & Flewelling, R.W. (1971). The relationship between WISC
verbal-performance discrepancies and selected verbal, auditory-perceptual, visual-
perceptual, and problem-solving abilities in children with learning disabilities. Journal of
Clinical Psychology, 27, 475-479.
Serlier-van den Bergh, A. M. (1999). De ontwikkeling en validering van de Nederlandse
NLD-schaal. Congrespresentatie 10 December 1999.