Educational Leadership
Volume 59 Number 3 November 2001

Understanding Learning Differences

Confronting the Puzzle of Nonverbal Learning Disabilities

Dorothy M. Vacca

Students with nonverbal learning disabilities present a perplexing challenge in the classroom, and understanding the symptoms is an important first step. Once the disorder is recognized, targeted interventions can improve the outlook for students and educators.

Sue, age 10, was telling her teacher about Amy's mis-behavior. Amy angrily refuted Sue's accusation and called her a liar. Sue responded, "And you're a tiger." She began to laugh uproariously, completely unaware of the incongruity of what had just transpired. When asked why she was laughing, Sue said she thought Amy was making a joke and wanted to play with her. She had no idea that Amy was angry or that her own behavior was inappropriate.

In another case, Caitlin was reprimanded by the principal for taking a ball away from a classmate. The next day, she took a ball from a different classmate and was again brought to the principal. When asked why she did the same thing for which she had been punished earlier, Caitlin said it was not the same. She would not do it again to the first student, but this was a different student. The principal had to explain that she was not to take anything away from any student, emphasizing both the specific action that was problematic and the application of the rule to all students.

Sue and Caitlin are examples of students with nonverbal learning disabilities, a neurological disorder in which nonverbal information such as holistic processing, visual-spatial perception and reasoning, intuitive responding, and organization are impaired. They lack many concepts and much of the understanding needed for commonplace interactions and learning (Rourke, 1995; Sheely, 2000; Thompson, 1997).

As with most learning disabilities and neurological disorders, nonverbal learning disabilities cover a broad continuum from mild to severe, with no two students showing identical behaviors. In its most severe form, the functional presentation of the disorder is virtually indistinguishable from Asperger's syndrome and high-functioning autism. It is the student with a milder form who may be perplexing to school personnel. Lacking an understanding of the disorder, they may see a student who is extremely capable in some ways and extremely difficult in others. Teachers may believe initially that the student is purposefully controlling, stubborn, or emotionally disturbed. Behaviors may easily be misinterpreted as oppositional, mean-spirited, and sarcastic. Ironically, students with a nonverbal learning disability have deficits in the very areas that would make sarcasm possible, and they do not have the type and breadth of knowledge expected of students their age. Because they have so many experiences in which others respond to them in ways that do not make sense to them, they have learned to live with and to expect disconnection. In turn, they frequently give responses that make no sense.

Because schools play such a crucial role in students' lives, educators should seek to understand this disorder and what they can do to help those who have it.


The impairments related to a nonverbal learning disability manifest themselves in seven main categories of deficits:


The cluster of behaviors and deficits common in students with a nonverbal learning disability cause the developing student to feel uncertain, insecure, and anxious (Thompson, 1997). To help ease the anxiety, the student becomes dependent on predictable routines and what may appear to be ritualistic behaviors. Unlike individuals with obsessive-compulsive disorder, who are aware of their obsessions and compulsions and do not want to have them, students with a nonverbal learning disability are attached to the rituals and resist changing them. They need to have them. Without them, life is too frightening, confusing, and unpredictable. These routines and escapes vary greatly from student to student. In some instances, they are "good" activities taken to the extreme.

Although neuroscientists are not in complete agreement about the cause of the disorder, Byron Rourke's (1995) "white matter, right hemisphere deficit" hypothesis is commonly accepted as a way to understand these confusing manifestations. Rourke suggests that bundles of fibers connect various parts of the brain and that if these fibers are blocked or have not developed normally at one or several places, communication between or among the parts is impaired. These impairments may be profound or quite mild, so that different students show different characteristics.

A typical learning profile for a student with a nonverbal learning disability might include the following strengths: excellent auditory attention and learning capabilities; an advanced store of factual information; strong literacy skills; and excellent phonemic awareness, segmentation, and blending abilities. Students with a nonverbal learning disability tend to be verbal and have good receptive language abilities. (As they get older, their difficulties with oral organization and stating ideas succinctly become apparent.) They can follow sequential presentations and simply formatted visual aids and are usually able to follow verbal or written directions by rote.

Challenges for these students may include difficulty with handwriting, including weak spacing and letter formation. In math, they may have a limited sense of number concepts, place value, and estimation; difficulty aligning mathematical information properly to produce an accurate answer; and a tendency to misread mathematical signs (Spreen, Risser, & Edgell, 1995). Students may do poorly in geography because complex maps and graphs elude them. Art and team sports may present frustrations.

In language arts, these students may have a disorganized writing style or simply string together related—or even unrelated—facts for a report. They may have difficulty developing a point of view or a theme, understanding the relationships between events, and relating these events to the main topic. They may be unable to draw conclusions, make inferences, or understand subtleties, metaphors, and figurative language; jokes and humor elude them. For example, consider this language arts exercise based on the following excerpt from Owls in the Family by Farley Mowat (1965):

Sunday morning my father said, "Billy, I think we have enough pets. I don't think you'd better bring home any owls. In any case, the owls might eat your rats and gophers. On second thought—maybe we do need an owl here!" (p. 37)


A student with a nonverbal learning disability may be able to answer the question, "Why did Billy's father not want him to bring home any owls?" but would likely have difficulty with the question, "What was father thinking when he said, 'On second thought—maybe we do need an owl here!'"

One Child's Story

Chris, an extremely bright student, could read before she started school. On a widely used intelligence test, she scored 120 on the Verbal I.Q. but 102 on the Performance I.Q. because of the nature of the nonverbal reasoning tasks. In preschool, she had difficulties understanding, shifting routines, playing cooperatively, and deciding what to do during free-choice time. She became confused as to which table she was to go to and what she was supposed to do. Because reading was the one school activity she enjoyed, she went to the reading table whenever she could, becoming en-grossed in book after book. If someone asked her to stop reading to do something else, she became belligerent. Soon the other students were leaving her alone.

By the time she entered 1st grade, Chris was an exceptional reader and a good speller. She learned facts easily and had excellent auditory attention abilities. Math, however, confused her. During math instruction, she would move out of the teacher's sight and read. She could create imaginative stories, but because handwriting was so difficult for her, she did not want to write them. On achievement tests, she scored in the high average to superior ranges—except in math.

Much of music class consisted of rhythm activities, which Chris could not follow. She would excuse herself, go to the bathroom, and read. She had a difficult time in art, especially with drawing, construction, and spatial arrangements. She would rush through art activities and read. When her artwork was returned to her, she angrily threw it in the trash. Because her coordination was weak and she lacked endurance, gym class was not enjoyable. She also avoided physical activities on the playground. She became more socially isolated and more dependent on reading as a way to avoid feeling anxious and depressed. She easily became disoriented when walking around the school. She could get lost going to the library, for example, if she started out in a room other than her classroom.

Eventually, the guidance counselor, the school psychologist, the speech and language pathologist, and the occupational therapist put together a behavior plan. Chris would be rewarded for on-task behavior (paying attention and completing math) by being allowed to read for 10 minutes following the lesson. She was also paired with another student to learn social skills. The social skills program consisted of direct teaching of social interactions that most students learn from modeling and other life experiences. Chris did not understand such concepts as cooperation and empathy, nor did she recognize nuances of facial expressions, body language, and appropriate spatial distance when interacting. She did not have the language skills to express her feelings in socially acceptable ways. She also had to learn about her anxiety and how to deal with it in ways other than escaping through reading.

As the expectations in-creased, other academic issues emerged. Although Chris could decode words at the 10th grade level, she had difficulties with the subtleties of language, inferential reasoning, drawing conclusions, and making abstract connections. She needed many examples of these activities to develop a mental template to use as a guide. She had to be shown how items were related and how to generalize. She had difficulty keeping track of assignments and staying organized.

With a number of interventions both at home and at school, Chris became more fully engaged in all areas of the curriculum and developed competencies and some friendships. Although the road was still rocky, by 5th grade she had a small group of friends, took swimming and drama lessons, and learned to use a computer for writing. Her art and gym teachers made accommodations so that she could succeed. An education plan guided her in learning math, writing, and language, focusing on her special challenges of organizing her writing clearly (written organization) and using and understanding nonliteral language in practical and social ways (language pragmatics). All school personnel were educated about the disorder and how best to interact with her. They treated her with respect and understanding. Without these interventions, she would most likely be at risk for serious depression in adolescence or adulthood.

Chris was lucky because she was bright, attended a school where personnel were available and willing to do what was needed to ensure her success, and had parents who were her education advocates. Other students who are not as bright may well have more difficulty learning abstractions. Students with milder forms of this disorder may not be noticed at all. Their serious demeanor, anxiety, and preference to play alone or with only one other student may be mistaken for a normal variation in personality (Greenspan, 1992).

As Chris prepares to enter middle school and high school, the complex developmental years of adolescence will most likely bring added challenges. It is crucial that the people who are involved with her education continue to collaborate and be available to guide her.

Schoolwide Supports

If school personnel are informed about the disorder, they can do much to help students with nonverbal learning disabilities adjust to a school environment. Conversely, a negative school experience can be disastrous for these students emotionally, developmentally, and educationally.

Certain characteristics of schools are essential for success. First, everyone—from the principal to the aides—must be "believers" in the reality of the disorder. They need to understand its symptoms and the necessary environmental and educational interventions.

Second, the school must be flexible within an overarching model of safety and predictability regarding school rules and standard operating procedures. Examples of the steps that schools might take to help these students include the following: allow short breaks throughout the day (Kranowitz, 1998); have a special swing or trampoline available; allow students who are bothered by the glare of fluorescent lights to wear hats or visors in the classroom; give choices; have a less- stimulating area of supervised playground available; show playground aides how to facilitate small-group play apart from the main activity area; seek student input and feedback on school procedures; have alternative lunch menu offerings; and have students become involved in the daily functioning of the school.

Third, school personnel must plan for these students. Although some students may meet eligibility criteria for special education, others may not. In either case, general educators will benefit from support and consultation with the special education staff and other specialists. All school staff need to make these students feel important, included, and successful, and they must protect them from potential bullies and punitive forms of discipline. The students need an environment in which they feel safe, are treated with respect and understanding, and have a sense of order and predictability. Having a school motto that the students create and enforce and clearly defining expectations for behavior that is respectful of all are some constructive practices.

Classroom Strategies

Within the classroom, teachers may find the following suggestions helpful in working with students with nonverbal learning disabilities:


School psychologists, school social workers and counselors, speech and language pathologists, special educators, and consultants with special training can help support teachers and others in the school and can educate and inform parents. With the proper intervention, the experience of the student with a nonverbal learning disability—and those who interact with that student—can be a positive one.


Attwood, T. (1998). Asperger's syndrome: A guide for parents and professionals. Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley.

Freeman, S., & Drake, L. (1996). Teach me language: A language manual for children with autism, Asperger's syndrome, and related developmental disorders. Langley, British Columbia, Canada: SKF Books.

Childswork/Childsplay [Catalog]. Includes books and games. Available from Childswork/Childsplay, 35 Dupont St., P.O. Box 760, Plainview, NY 11803; (800) 962-1141;

Csoti, M. (2000). People skills for young adults. Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley.

Gray, C. (2000). Taming the recess jungle. Available from Future Horizons, 721 W. Abram St., Arlington, TX 76013; (800) 489-0727;

The morning news [Quarterly newsletter]. Available from the Gray Center for Social Learning and Understanding, Jenison Public Schools, 2140 Bauer Rd., Jenison, MI 49428; (616) 457-8955;

Searle, Y., & Streng, I. (1996). The social skills game. Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley.

Williams, M. S., & Shellenberger, S. (1996). How does your engine run? A leader's guide to the Alert Program for Self-Regulation. Helps children to learn self-awareness and self-regulation. Available from Therapy Works, Inc., 4901 Butte Pl., NW, Albuquerque, NM 87120; (505) 897-3478;


Web Sites


Nonverbal Learning Disabilities

NLD on the Web




Greenspan, S. L. (1992). Infancy and early childhood: The practice of clinical assessment and intervention with emotional and developmental challenges. Madison, CT: International Universities Press.

Kranowitz, C. S. (1998). The out-of-sync child. New York: Perigee.

Mowat, F. (1965). Owls in the family. In H. Robinson, M. Monroe, A. Atley, G. Huck, & W. Jenkins (Eds.), Wide horizons (pp. 20–127). Chicago: Scott Foresman.

Rourke, B. P. (1995). Syndrome of nonverbal learning disabilities. New York: Guilford Press.

Sheely, R. (2000, Summer). Nonverbal learning disorder: A closer look. The Source, 1, 6. (Available from the Asperger Syndrome Coalition of the United States, P.O. Box 351268, Jacksonville, FL 32235;

Spreen, O., Risser, A., & Edgell, D. (1995). Developmental neuropsychology. New York: Oxford University Press.

Thompson, S. (1997). The source for nonverbal learning disabilities. East Moline, IL: LinguiSystems.

Dorothy M. Vacca is a psychologist and consultant, 64 Bishops Forest Dr., Waltham, MA 02452;