Nonverbal Learning Disorder in Children: What Is It?

Do you know what nonverbal learning disorder in children is? We'll tell you everything you need to know in this article.
Nonverbal Learning Disorder in Children: What Is It?
Mara Amor López

Reviewed and approved by the psychologist Mara Amor López.

Written by Mara Amor López

Last update: 27 December, 2022

There’s a neurodevelopmental disorder called nonverbal learning disorder, which can affect the acquisition of “non-verbal” learning and therefore go totally unnoticed by teachers and parents for many years. In this case, children may show difficulties in incorporating concepts other than language, even when this area is highly developed for their age.

This disorder mainly impacts the social and perceptual areas of infants. The little ones who suffer from it have difficulties in understanding the patterns of facial expressions, body language, and any other type of communication that doesn’t involve words.

If you want to know more about what it is and what can be done to improve the development of your children, don’t miss this article. Will you join us?

What is nonverbal learning disorder in children?

Nonverbal learning disorder (NVLD) is a problem of neurobiological basis. That is, the brain develops with this alteration from the beginning and it’s not the consequence of something that’s been done or not done during early childhood.

As we’ve anticipated, NVLD is characterized by a malfunction of certain areas of the brain, linked to motor, coordination, and visuospatial/visuoconstructive skills, as well as difficulties in social relationships. This occurs in children with optimal language development and with a normal level of intelligence.

When children are very young, it’s possible to observe some psychomotor difficulties , such as in plastic tasks, drawing, and, later on, in calculation.

In adulthood, the most characteristic are problems in establishing family, couple, or friendship relationships. Also, difficulties in coexistence, personal autonomy, and work performance.

Many people with this disorder may have psychological problems arising from the impact that this disorder has on their lives.

Children sitting on the floor doing schoowork.
Learning disabilities can affect different areas of brain development. They’re not always accompanied by the same signs and usually become evident as the child progresses through school.

Symptoms of nonverbal learning disorder (NVLD)

Some of the symptoms that may lead us to suspect NVLD are the following:

  • Problems understanding body language and facial expressions
  • Difficulties in coping with new situations
  • Poor planning and organizational skills
  • High level of oral language development (they tend to talk more than other children)
  • Limited understanding of mathematical concepts
  • Tendency to uncoordinated movements (they move clumsily)
  • Difficulties in judging distances and understanding proximity relationships
  • Lack of ability to understand sarcasm and double meanings
  • Inability to distinguish the emotions of others
  • Difficulties decoding and understanding visual information
  • Poor problem-solving skills

Areas most affected by NVLD

Five areas are most affected in children with NVLD, although this doesn’t mean that they always experience difficulties in all of them.

1. Higher-order comprehension

They have difficulty identifying the main idea of things and the details that support it, as well as the relationship between these aspects. For this reason, reading comprehension and writing are strongly affected.

2. Visual and spatial awareness

Many children with this disorder have difficulty understanding visual images and are unable to understand the relationship between what they see and its location.

3. Social communication

These children often have problems understanding the emotions of others when not mediated by words. That is, from facial expressions and body language. Because of this, they often have difficulties in social interactions and can’t identify the point of conflict.

4. Executive functions

Executive functions are a set of skills that help us organize our thoughts, plan, and carry out actions to solve certain problems.

Children with NVLD have difficulties in planning and organizing functions.

5. Understanding math concepts

When children are young, they may do well in math because they memorize the facts they learn. But as they get older, they find it increasingly difficult to solve math problems, especially those related to patterns and concept recognition.

How is nonverbal learning disorder approached?

Treatment for this disorder should be multimodal, as intervention in almost all affected areas is necessary:

  • Neuropsychological/neurocognitive training
  • Educational intervention
  • Social skills training
  • Intervention with the family (training and information to parents)
  • Psychological therapy

These are some of the treatments carried out to improve the symptoms of this disorder. We mustn’t forget that early detection and early intervention are key to obtain the best results in the development of the child.

A child pointing to a sad face during a therapy session.
The accompaniment of these infants and their families is essential to achieving greater autonomy and self-sufficiency in the future.

About nonverbal learning disorder in children

Nonverbal learning disorder in children is a challenge when it comes to detection because it can be confused with other neurodevelopmental pathologies, such as Asperger syndrome.

Also, in the absence of general diagnostic criteria, there’s a lot of ignorance on the part of health and education professionals. And if there’s no correct and timely diagnosis, there will be no adaptation in the classroom.

This disorder can go unnoticed in children who suffer from it because they show a very advanced language. They can even achieve good academic results in other areas.

Therefore, if you have doubts that your child may be in this group, don’t hesitate to consult your pediatrician or request assistance from a child psychologist. Remember that the earlier it’s detected, the better opportunities you can offer your child.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.