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What are nonverbal learning disabilities?

By Gail Belsky

At a Glance

  • Trouble with social skills is a key challenge of NVLD.

  • NVLD isn’t a learning disability, but the difficulties can impact learning.

  • There are ways to help people improve skills and manage the challenges.

Nonverbal learning disabilities (NVLD) is a term that refers to challenges with a specific group of skills. These skills aren’t language-based like reading and writing are. They’re nonverbal skills, and they include motor, visual-spatial, and social skills. 

NVLD isn’t an official diagnosis. But the challenges are real and can have an impact on learning and on working. They also make social interaction very hard. 

People with these difficulties often have strong verbal skills. But they may not know when someone’s being sarcastic. They may talk a lot, but not share in a socially appropriate way. There’s also a physical aspect. People with NVLD often have problems with coordination. 

These are lifelong struggles, but they aren’t related to intelligence. With support, people may improve these skills and learn social strategies that can help. Still, they’re often misunderstood and judged, and they may have a hard time fitting in.

Dive deeper

What NVLD can look like

While trouble with social skills is a key difficulty, challenges may show up in other ways, too. Here are some examples:

  • Remembers information but doesn’t know why it’s important

  • Pays attention to details but misses the big picture

  • Struggles with reading comprehension

  • Struggles with math , especially word problems

  • Is physically awkward and uncoordinated

  • Has messy handwriting

  • Thinks in literal, concrete terms

  • Misses social cues and misreads situations

  • Stands too close to people

  • Is oblivious to people’s reactions

  • Changes the subject abruptly in conversation

  • Has trouble adjusting to changes

  • Has difficulty organizing thoughts

Learn more about trouble with social skills and what can cause it .

Trouble picking up on social cues

People with these challenges often have strong verbal skills. But they have trouble with communication that isn’t verbal. They frequently miss social cues like tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language. 

They might not realize they’re standing too close when the person they’re talking to takes a step back. They might not recognize that a frown means they’re talking about something that’s inappropriate. Or that a certain tone of voice means the person is teasing.

Not getting the subtle, unspoken messages people send out makes it hard to form relationships. It can also leave people feeling isolated.

Learn more about social cues and nonverbal communication .

What can help with these challenges

There are a number of things that can help people improve skills and manage some of the difficulties. These include:

  • Social skills groups to teach people how to handle social situations such as greeting someone, joining a conversation, and recognizing and responding to teasing

  • Occupational therapy to build tolerance for outside experiences, improve coordination, and enhance fine motor skills

  • Cognitive therapy to help deal with anxiety and other mental health issues that can occur with these challenges

Schools might give kids informal supports in class to help keep challenges from getting in the way of learning. Adults may also be able to get accommodations at work.

Related topics

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  • Coming soonGoogle Classroom