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Academic Challenges and Strategies for Children with Non-Verbal Learning Disorder

written by: KLeeBanks • edited by: Paul Arnold • updated: 5/31/2011

In order to identify what are the academic challenges of children with non-verbal learning disorder (NVLD), it’s important to understand that NVLD is not the same as Asperger’s syndrome, or being unable to speak. NVLD affects the language and communication process, interfering with comprehension.

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    Introduction

    Some people experience confusion over whether a child has Asperger’s syndrome or Non -Verbal Learning Disorder (NVLD/NLD), as the two developmental disorders share some similarities. In spite of NVLD/NLD’s relation to autism spectrum disorders (ASD), the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) does not specifically list NVLD/NLD as part of ASD. NVLD/NLD is not the same as being non-verbal, unable to speak.

    Instead, NVLD/NLD primarily interferes with a child’s comprehension of language and communication in varying degrees. While the child with NVLD/NLD may appear to have a normal range of speech and language development in step with his or her typically developing peers, the child struggles primarily by not recognizing or understanding non-verbal cues. These cues can include facial gestures, body language, tone of voice, and general socially acceptable behavior. The child with NVLD/NLD also seems to have a compulsion to gain attention and talk excessively, giving him or her the reputation or appearance of being rude and egotistical.

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    Academic Challenges of Children with Non-Verbal Learning Disorder

    The academic challenges for the child with NVLD/NLD consist of three main integration areas: non-verbal cues, visual-spatial orientation, and motor coordination, as defined by Pediatric Neurology. [2]

    Non-verbal Cues

    The child with NVLD/NLD has difficulty distinguishing various non-verbal cues, including body language, facial gestures, tone of voice, and emotional expression. As a result, he or she can often present challenging behavior in the classroom, through talking out of turn, seeking attention, and behaving inappropriately.

    Visual-Spatial Orientation

    The challenge with visual-spatial perception or orientation can cause the child with NVLD to become fixated on details, rather than comprehend the “big picture" of required tasks. For instance, the child with NVLD may understand that he or she has to complete a worksheet, but not comprehend where to place the answers. Visual-spatial orientation may also make it difficult for the child to understand his or her schedule of classes, or locate the correct classroom. Changes in schedule, location, or other established routine can cause panic for the child with NVLD.

    Motor Coordination

    Related to visual-spatial orientation, children with NVLD also have difficulties with both large and fine motor skills. The clumsiness and lack of coordination they experience, for instance, makes it difficult for them to participate in gym classes or sports. Poor fine motor skills interfere with activities like writing, typing, and art or craft projects, as well as tying shoelaces or zipping up jackets.

    The site, NLD on the Web!, summarizes the academic problems faced by children with NVLD/NLD as follows [3]:

    • Difficulty interacting with other children.
    • Lack in self-help skills.
    • Lack physical aptitude.
    • Not adaptable.
    • Easily become lost.
    • Frequently forget to do homework.
    • Appear unprepared for class.
    • Have difficulty following directions.
    • Struggle with math or reading their social studies textbooks.
    • Can't write essays.
    • Frequently misunderstand teachers and peers alike.
    • Often anxious in public and angry at home.

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    Academic Strategies

    At NLDLine, author Sue Thompson provided an article highlighting an educational plan for NLD students. She advocates maximizing the strengths of these students while recognizing their weaknesses. Based on this, Thompson recommends creating an IEP to facilitate coping strategies that would ultimately maximize the students’ potential, based on these 10 characteristics [4]:

    1. Accommodate the student’s problems with “internal and external organization, visual- spatial orientation, directional concepts and coordination" by assigning peer buddies to assist the student, eliminating penalties for tardiness, and rehearsing how to navigate to and from destinations.

    2. Accommodate the student’s problems with transitions and changes in routine by providing a consistent daily schedule, as much as possible, in a predictable and safe environment; minimizing transitions, while giving advance cues about upcoming changes; and providing the student with a written schedule at the beginning of the day, both in the classroom, and on a card the student can bring with him or her.

    3. Accommodate the student’s problems with generalizing previously learned material to new situations and contexts by never expecting the student to generalize; bridging old and new concepts with appropriate instruction, including reviewing previous information and pointing out similarities; and meticulously discussing cause-and-effect relationships.

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    4. Accommodate the student’s difficulties with multiple step directions by writing out or tape recording clear steps, numbered in sequential order; breaking all directions down into manageable chunks, presented a few at a time; assuring the student understands directions, periodically checking in to confirm his or her understanding; and pairing the student with a peer buddy who can help recall steps.

    5. Accommodate the student’s tendency to interpret speech and text literally by explaining exactly what you mean, clearly and concisely; simplifying abstract concepts or gradually moving from concrete to abstract concepts; and instructing the student to speak up whenever he or she doesn’t understand something.

    6. Accommodate the student’s tendency to interrupt and ask repetitive questions by letting him or her know you will answer a set number of questions at the moment, and the remainder at a designated time; answering his or her questions after starting other students on an assignment; and teaching the student about polite social conduct in class, including when is the appropriate time to ask questions.

    7. Accommodate the student’s tendency to become easily overwhelmed by minimizing visual and tactile stimuli, and giving the student an acceptable coping mechanism if he or she becomes over stimulated; allowing the student to not participate in activities at that time; and reducing or eliminating nightly homework by implementing a modified or creative study schedule.

    8. Accommodate the student’s problems with hypersensitivity to external stimuli by eliminating known sensory stimuli and reducing distractions; and seating the student in a location with the least amount of distraction.

    9. Accommodate the student’s problems with heightened, chronic anxiety and stress by providing consistent routine as much as possible, or preparing for new situations in advance; gradually introducing the student to new people, concepts, or situations, while avoiding sudden surprises; and talking a student through, or removing from, a stressful situation, allowing him or her to relax in a safe personal space.

    10. Accommodate the student’s appearance of high levels of competency by recognizing his or her areas of weakness and developing a highly specialized IEP; applying flexible age- and grade-level expectations; fully showcasing his or her academic strengths with cooperative learning opportunities; and never assuming the student fully understands spoken or written directions.

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    Conclusion

    What are the academic challenges of children with non verbal learning disorder (NVLD/NLD)? Children with NVLD/NLD do not have Asperger’s Syndrome, nor are they non-verbal, unable to speak. Instead, they primarily struggle to integrate and comprehend nuances of language and communication, such as non-verbal cues like facial expressions and tone of voice. Children with NLVD/NLD also have difficulty with visual-spatial orientation and motor coordination. Educators can employ various strategies to aid these children and help them succeed in school. Author Susan Thompson recommended creation of a specialized IEP based on 10 specific characteristics, to achieve the goal of maximizing the potential of a student with NVLD/NLD.

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    References & Resources

    [1][2]Pediatric Neurology. Non-Verbal Learning Disabilities: trouble with the gestalt/integration of non-verbal information. Retrieved from http://www.pediatricneurology.com/autism.htm#Non-Verbal%20Learning%20Disabilities%20%28NVLDs%29

    [3]NLD on the Web! NLD Home page. Retrieved from http://www.nldontheweb.org/

    4]NLDLine. Neurobehavioral Characteristics Seen in the Classroom - Developing an Educational Plan for the Student with NLD. Retrieved from http://www.nldline.com/

    Resources

    NLDLine. Welcome to NLDLine! Retrieved from http://www.nldline.com/

    NLD on the Web! NLD Forum. Retrieved from http://www.nldontheweb.org/nldforum.html

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