Non-verbal learning disorder: what is it and what are its symptoms?

Developmental disabilities particularly affect school-aged children. There is no doubt that they can be really damaging to your academic training, besides affecting psychological aspects such as your self-esteem and your self-image.

Among the developmental disorders that have been described, the best known are those which affect the school curriculum more strikingly, in addition to the social sphere, such as ADHD and ASD.

However, there is also a disorder in which children seemingly have no developmental issues and simply appear clumsy or even vague.

One of them is nonverbal learning disability, Which we discuss in this article in addition to presenting its characteristics and warning signs.

What is a nonverbal learning disability?

It is a developmental disorder whose cause is due to neurological problems, Specifically to a dysfunction in the right hemisphere. Since its first description in 1971, it has been given other names: motor coordination disorder, developmental dyspraxia, procedural learning disorder, among others.

People with nonverbal learning disabilities suffer from problems in different ways, especially those related to motor coordination, visuospatial perception and understanding of social context. All are linked to difficulties in interpreting non-verbal signals.

In the academic realm, the abilities affected in this disorder are usually practiced in subjects such as music, physical education, or art. For this reason, and given the usual low priority given to these topics, it is common for children with this disorder not to be viewed as people with a developmental problem, but rather an attitude problem. You might think that they are clumsy or vague children, and that they don’t give the best of themselves.

In addition, it should be noted that it is not uncommon for intellectual problems to occur in children diagnosed with this disorder, which is why it may seem that in reality, when the problems do manifest themselves, it is not not because they have an underlying neurological or psychological problem.

Given its characteristics, nonverbal learning disability has a strong comorbidity with other developmental disabilities. 40% of people diagnosed with this disorder may have a language problem. Additionally, in other disorders, such as TEL (Specific Language Disorder), visuospatial problems can occur, making differential diagnosis difficult.

Characteristics of the disorder

These children suffer from problems, especially in areas related to non-verbal language, motor coordination and visuospatial perception..

They have problems learning motor routines, which is why they are often considered clumsy and arrhythmic. In addition, they exhibit a slow learning pace in games in which various movements are required. This manifests itself in difficulties when learning to ride a bike, swim, play musical instruments …

Due to motor issues, it is common for children with this disorder to have difficulty writing, causing the lettering to be unclean and clear, as well as disorganized.

Visuospatial perception is affected, Showing in the form of difficulty interpreting a clue of an incomplete visual stimulus. In addition, they may have difficulty indicating the distance an object is located and its size, in addition to visuospatial organization problems. This issue might not be that big in the early stages of learning, but getting to high school can become more striking.

In addition, there may be problems with tactile perception, especially on the left side of the body. This is due to the fact that the dysfunction is located in the right hemisphere, since its contralateral part is the left hemibody.

One of the characteristics that makes this disorder misinterpreted as an ASD is the fact that there are problems adapting to change or dealing with very new situations. They may also have problems with spatial and temporal orientation, get lost in the streets, and do their homework more slowly than other children their age.

The great difficulty that gives its name to this disorder is linked to non-verbal language. Children with non-verbal learning disabilities find it difficult to interpret signals which, although not formulated explicitly, acquire great importance in communication.

This is another reason why they can be mistaken for high performance autistic people (what was traditionally called Asperger’s syndrome). They may have issues with pragmatic aspects of language such as prosody and non-literal meanings. This results in an affect on their social relationships, as they cannot understand playful behaviors such as jokes or irony and sarcasm.

Despite all these difficulties, it is important to note that children with non-verbal learning disabilities exhibit normal intelligence and, in particular, average verbal skills. This means that aspects such as vocabulary, reading and spelling are preserved and therefore generally not cause serious problems in subjects such as math and language.

Symptoms and warning signs

  • Early onset of language.
  • Slow start to walk.
  • Difficulty doing plastic work.
  • Bad at sports.
  • Fine motor difficulties: tying the bib, putting on the jacket, playing an instrument …
  • Clumsy.
  • Difficulty in navigating.
  • He doesn’t like novelty.
  • Particularly ugly and messy lettering.
  • Difficulty interpreting the analog clock.

emotional affectation

In school settings, children with non-verbal learning disabilities suffer from problems in subjects in which motor and visuospatial skills are practiced.. When they suffer from problems in these skills, but not in others like reading, more related to subjects like language or math, they are often classified as clumsy or even badly brought up children.

Such labels can cause a lot of emotional distress in the child, because he does not understand how it is and does not put it on. This, in addition to having difficulty communicating due to not understanding all the social signals that are sent non-verbally, these children are considered rare and alone.


If the problem is not caught in time, these labels will generate increasing discomfort, affecting their self-esteem and self-concept, and can be very limiting going forward.

It is for facts like this that a correct and thorough assessment is necessary. For example, in the case of a child with a non-verbal learning disability, an intervention plan can be developed, in addition to providing teachers and families with strategies to facilitate learning. Outraged, it will be possible to educate both teachers and family members to avoid using negative terms such as “awkward” or “vague” and to protect the student’s self-esteem.

Bibliographical references:

  • Crespo-Eguílaz, N., and García, JN (2009). Procedural learning disorder: neuropsychological features. Journal of Neurology, 49 (8), 409-416.
  • García-Nonell, C., Rigau-Ratera, I., and Pallarés, JA (2006). Neurocognitive profile of nonverbal learning disability. Journal of Neurology, 43 (5), 268-274.
  • Harnadek, MC and Rourke, BP (1994). Main identifying features of the syndrome of nonverbal learning difficulties in children. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 27 (3), 144-154.

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