Nonverbal Learning Disabilities: An Overview

At A Glance

Children with NLD have difficulties understanding nonverbal information, which can result in academic, social, and emotional challenges • Contrary to the name of this disorder, these children often have excellent verbal skills and do well in elementary school, delaying detection of their learning disability • Their academic problems come to light as school becomes more complex and implied learning replaces rote learning

1.1.5-NLD-OverviewNonverbal learning disabilities (NLD) impact the ability to learn from and use nonverbal information. Kids with NLD have trouble understanding the “big picture.” They may also have problems with reading comprehension, math, and implied meaning.

Because social interaction relies heavily on nonverbal cues (facial expression, tone, body language), these children may be socially awkward. They tend to be overly literal in their interpretation of social cues, missing the nuances others intuitively understand. They also tend to have difficulty understanding cause-and-effect relationships and anticipating the consequences of their actions.

Despite the name of this disorder, those who have NLD are far from nonverbal. In fact, verbal skills are their greatest asset. But because they are adept with language, verbal reasoning, and rote memory, their disabilities frequently are not detected until middle or high school. As they move up in school, comprehension often becomes challenging as they have trouble inferring, interpreting, and reading between the lines of complex assignments.

Is this your child?
  • Talks a lot, but says very little
  • Sees the trees, not the forest
  • Focuses on details; misses the main idea
  • Does not see the big picture
  • Does not read facial expressions, gestures, or other nonverbal cues
  • Misses subtleties and nuances
  • Is socially awkward
  • Has few friends—especially among same-age peers
  • Processes information in a linear, sequential manner, missing multiple dimensions
  • Confuses abstract concepts yet can recall sequences
  • Shuts down when faced with pressure to perform
  • Has poor handwriting

While the cause of NLD has not been identified, it is thought to be a developmental disorder related to the right hemisphere of the brain—the part of the brain that integrates information from several senses at once (e.g. hearing and sight).


There are no medical treatments for NLD, but there are strategies and interventions that can help. As with all learning disabilities, interventions must address each child’s unique profile as determined by a thorough evaluation.

In general, it’s important that these children are given clear, oral instructions at home and at school. Because of their social awkwardness, adults should monitor peer relationships, provide training in social skills development, and encourage self-confidence and self-esteem. Due to poor visual-spatial abilities, these children are sometimes sidelined when it comes to sports, but for their health and wellbeing it is important to find physical activities they can participate in (e.g. swimming, track, martial arts, etc).


Children with NLD typically have good reading skills, often outpacing their peers in elementary school. Because they have excellent verbal memory, they often possess a large store of information and have a well-developed vocabulary. They tend to learn best via listening.

Signs & Symptoms
Not all children with NLD display the same mix of assets and deficits. However, suspect NLD if your child has a combination of several of these learning behaviors: Assets:
  • Remarkable rote memory
  • Attention to detail
  • Strong auditory retention
  • Weak visual-spatial abilities
  • Weak visual discrimination abilities
  • Poor organizational skills
  • Difficulty with inference and abstract reasoning
  • Inflexible adherence to logic
  • Problems with mathematical reasoning
  • Difficulty reading nonverbal cues
  • Impaired fine motor skills

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