NLD is not SED

One Mom's Story on Bullying and NLD

Last April, I received yet another telephone call from the assistant principal of my 13-year-old son's middle school. "Ms. Matthews," she said, "We need you to come and pick Andrew up from school immediately. He is not cooperating and we will not tolerate his behavior." I was very upset that Andrew, once again, was in trouble at school. We had been through so much that I simply did not know what to do anymore.

Andrew became a special education student at the tender age of three. Aware that something was wrong when Andrew did not learn to talk, I had him tested. As a result, Andrew began attending a wonderful, private, special education nursery school. He was diagnosed as having auditory processing problems, sensory integration difficulties, and developmental delays. Andrew managed through public kindergarten, first, and second grade, under the watchful eye of special educators, without great incident. During that time, Andrew became a very good reader and developed excellent verbal skills. His handwriting was illegible, and he struggled learning the basic concepts of mathematics, but, given his background, I was pleased with his progress.

In 3rd grade, however, academic and behavioral problems surfaced. At that time, Andrew began being bullied by his peers, lagged behind significantly in mathematics, and was labeled as a behavioral problem by his regular education teacher. Andrew became particularly disruptive during recess, and other unstructured times of the school day. Fire drills, which, of course, are always a surprise, were very upsetting to him. Andrew remained, however, an excellent reader and a member of the "highest" spelling group in his class. In 4th grade, although they had neglected to offer special education services or a Behavioral Intervention Plan, the school decided that Andrew should be coded as an SED, or Severely Emotionally Disturbed, student. This label first shocked, and then, saddened me. I simply could not view Andrew, who is truly the warmest and most loving person that I have ever known, as "emotionally disturbed." In any case, due to the small class size and highly structured setting, Andrew did well in fifth and sixth grades. Sixth grade was so smooth, in fact, that Andrew successfully mainstreamed completely out of the small, self-contained SED classroom.

This school year, 7th grade, however, had been a completely different story. Receiving little special education support, Andrew was failing miserably academically, behaviorally, and socially. Andrew was labeled a "dysfunctional student" by his physical education teacher, was thrown out of the after-school Homework Club for rolling his eyes at the teacher and was deprived of the right to attend a class field trip, according to his English teacher, because of his "impulsivity." Further, Andrew's mathematics skills remained poor, his handwriting was more illegible than ever, his other grades fell, he was unable to get along with his peers, and he was miserable. Over the course of the school year, in an effort to get Andrew's problems under control, I requested many meetings, made suggestions to teachers, telephoned school administrators, and wrote many letters to school staff. I also discussed the problems on countless occasions with Andrew's psychologist, made the statement to his psychiatrist that his medication was no longer effective, and, perhaps most taxing, spent many hours talking to and lecturing Andrew his troubles at school.

Many times during that school year, Andrew would come home from school and explode. "Mom," Andrew would cry, "Those kids won't leave me alone, the teachers blame everything on me, I can't pay attention in class, and I don't know what to do, Mom I don't know what to do." His regular education peers had bullied Andrew unmercifully every day for the entire school year. Andrew was afraid to eat lunch in the school lunchroom due to bullies, and sought refuge in the offices of various school staff members. One of Andrew's bullies was bold enough to frequent our neighborhood after school, to continue his bullying, on several occasions. Very upset that my son was being treated so badly, I delivered 50 copies of an excellent article regarding bullying, clipped from The Washington Post, to the school. Regardless, school staff seemed to think that it was more important to change Andrew's reactions to the bullying than it was to stop his peers from bullying him. In this year 2000, unfortunately, schoolyard bullying remains an abuse for which the victim is blamed.

That afternoon last April, after being requested to pick Andrew up from school early, I leafed through his notebook. I came upon a typed, laminated poem that he had written for English class:

I Am a Dog

I am a dog who jumped on a log
Then I ate a pog
And I ripped a catalog.

I chewed a sock
Then a bird mocked.

Then I Barked
And ate a piece of bark.

Then I got sick
I trotted over to get a stick.

Then I cried
Then I laid down to cry.

Then I had a funeral
My owner had to cry.

She thought it was best
For me to lay to rest.

Stunned by the suicidal ideation of Andrew's poem, I cried. I was unable, at that moment, to fully digest the complete hopelessness that Andrew was feeling. I did know that things had to change, and quickly.

I began to search the Internet for information. I sifted through a mass of information about delayed speech, sensory integration, behavioral problems, autism, learning disabilities, and psychological problems. Although my initial searches did not net me information that helped me with Andrew's current school problems, I finally, somehow, linked onto I had never heard of Nonverbal Learning Disorder.

The symptoms of this problem, I read, are "... remarkable rote memory skills, attention to detail, early reading skills, excellent spelling skills, strong auditory retention, problems with visual-spatial organization." Hmmm, sounds like Andrew, I thought. Then, under the "social" category, "lack of ability to comprehend nonverbal communication, difficulties adjusting to transitions and novel situations, deficits in social judgment and social interaction." I discovered, finally, that the problems that Andrew had, and has always had, do, indeed, have a name. Andrew had Nonverbal Learning Disorder. As his mother, I was sure.

I quickly ordered several of the books suggested on the website, including Sue Thompson's The Source for Nonverbal Learning Disorders, and Nowicki and Duke's Helping the Child Who Doesn't Fit In. I read each book from cover to cover. I contacted Andrew's psychologist and shared my thoughts with her. Upon completing a psychological evaluation, Andrew's test results showed a 19-point difference between his verbal IQ and his performance IQ scores. With this information, and knowing Andrew's strengths and weaknesses due to many years of working with him, Dr. Paula Elitov gave Andrew the diagnosis of Nonverbal Learning Disorder. I was very happy to have Andrew's doctor confirm what I already knew.

I refused to send Andrew back to school under the SED I.E.P. that had been created for him at the end of 7th grade. Following several weeks of home schooling, a mediation hearing that fell apart, and my initiation of a Due Process hearing, the head of special education for our local school system arranged to have Andrew placed in small, self-contained, classes for children with learning disabilities, and not emotional disturbance. Although Andrew's LD teachers have been difficult to convince that the problems that manifest in children with Nonverbal Learning Disorder are nothing like the difficulties of children with language-based learning disabilities, this placement was certainly an improvement.

I am thrilled to report that Andrew received straight A's on his last report card! We have applied for Andrew to attend the nationally known Lab School in Washington, DC1 for next school year. We often discuss colleges that have good LD programs, too. Although the high levels of anxiety, inability to read nonverbal social cues, deficits in visual-spatial processing, and organizational difficulties, that are part of NLD remain, Andrew is now a good student, and is doing well in his school setting.

Although children with Nonverbal Learning Disorder may, at times, behave inappropriately, they are not emotionally disturbed. Most parents of these children, in fact, report them to be some of the kindest and gentlest children around. Some parents, like me, describe their children with NLD as "warm," "loving," "affectionate," and "excellent with babies and animals." Andrew has my promise that he will never again be placed in an SED classroom or be expected to survive without support in the regular education setting. Children with NLD do not benefit, and, in fact, often suffer, in these educational placements.

Most important, though, is that Andrew no longer views himself as a "dog" that should "lay to rest." Now provided with a more appropriate school placement, a parent and a doctor that thoroughly understand his neurological deficits, and quite a bit of time spent on increasing his self-esteem, Andrew now knows that he is an intelligent, participating, individual that happens to have some differences. I will continue to remind Andrew that who he is, and how he is, is exactly as he is supposed to be. I wouldn't want him to be any other way, because Andrew is delightful, just as he is.

Jill G. Matthews
April 1, 2000