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V.2 #2 Social Development - Nonverbal Learning Disorders and Social Skill Difficulty

Although professionals have recognized nonverbal learning disabilities (NLD) for over 30 years, there is little information on this neuropsychological disability. The lack of information comes partly from the disability not being included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th Edition, Text Revision (DSM-IV TR) and the lack of a clear, widely accepted definition.

What is nonverbal learning disability (NLD)?

NLD is defined by the distinct pattern of a child’s strengths as well as the areas in which they have difficulties. Individuals with NLD usually display strengths in the following areas.

  • Intelligence: average to above average as measured by a standardized IQ test. Verbal scores typically exceed performance scores.

  • Language Development: early and precocious language skills with the ability to memorize and repeat back information told to them.

  • Auditory Processing: learns best by hearing information rather than seeing it.

Individuals with NLD typically display difficulty in several of the following areas:

  • Motor Skills: both fine (like handwriting) and/or gross motor (like coordination).

  • Abstract Thinking Skills: including comprehension of meaning, cause and effect relationships, and problem solving.

  • Visual-Spatial Skills: processing of visual material, such as poor visual recall and distorted spatial perceptions.

  • Organizational Skills: executive functioning difficulty including planning, and goal setting.

  • Activity Level: changing from very active at younger ages to under active with age.

  • Sense Perception: sensitivity in areas of visual, auditory, tactile, taste or olfactory senses.

  • Social Skills: including difficulty in new situations, with transitions, poor conversation and nonverbal communication skills, and faulty social judgment.

Interestingly, areas that parents view as strengths in early childhood are overshadowed by difficulties as the child ages. For example, a child with an extensive vocabulary as a toddler will begin to experience socialization problems due to his inability to understand nonverbal communications.

How does NLD influence a child’s social life?

These areas of difficulty can impact social relationships with other children and adults as ironically their strong verbal skills may hide a lack of understanding of the implicit non-verbal aspects of interactions. Social disabilities such as this have been termed dyssemia by psychologists Marshall Duke and Stephen Nowicki (1992, 1996). Dyssemic individuals can be socially awkward and often feel out of place. The danger with recurrent patterns of socially unacceptable behaviors such as these is that the child could withdraw from school and social experiences.

Difficulties Associated with Dyssemia

Students with Dyssemia may exhibit the following behaviors:

  • Facial Expressions: do not match with what they or others are saying

  • Gestures and Body Posture: mistake friendly actions for hostile ones, or vice versa.

  • Pitch and Tone of Voice and Language: laugh too loud or at the wrong times or make embarrassing remarks.

  • Interpersonal Space: stands too close and/or touches others in annoying ways.

  • Mood, Manners, and Behaviors: move too slowly, or too fast; appearance is out of touch with current fashions; they don't seem to get the message even when told to behave differently.

Strategies for Promoting Social Skills

Children with NLD must engage in active learning of nonverbal communication skills to improve their ability to socialize with others effectively. Teachers/parents and more skilled peers can help to make connections that the child does not make on her own. Strategies to promote the social engagement of children with NLD include:

  • publicly noticing and complimenting children who usually go unnoticed.

  • providing a time for the non-threatening open expression of problems and ideas.

  • thinking aloud to brainstorm solutions or actions to various situations.

  • giving specific positive reinforcement and encouragement for efforts made.

  • providing opportunities for collaborative work and play.

  • setting up role playing opportunities that model successful interactions, problem solving and displays of empathy.

  • using books to instruct and prompt discussion of choices and behaviors.

As always, if you have concerns that a child you work with or care about may have a learning disability or a NLD consult a psychologist.


American Psychiatric Association (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th edition, text revision). Washington, D.C.: AmericanPsychiatric Association.

Duke, M.P., Martin, E.A., & Nowicki, S. (1996). Teaching Your Child the Language of Social Success. Atlanta, GA: Peachtree Publishers.

Hubbard, A. & Smith Myles, B. Nonverbal Learning Disorders. Retrieved on 8/1/08 from

Morris, S. (2002). Promoting social skills among students with nonverbal learning disabilities. Teaching Exceptional Children, 34(3), 66-70.

Nowicki, S. & Duke, M. (1992). Helping the Child Who Doesn't Fit In. Atlanta: Peachtree Publishers.

Micheline Malow, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Special Education at Manhattanville College in Purchase, New York. In addition to teaching courses in Exceptional Students and Instructional Strategies for Teaching Students with Learning and Behavioral Disorders, she has presented at numerous professional conferences and published articles on friendship, risk taking behavior, and students with disabilities. Currently she is finishing a co-authored book for Greenwood Press, Adolescents and Risk.

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