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Defining Autism Spectrum Disorders
The autism spectrum encompasses a wide range of neurological and developmental disorders that includes five main types; autism, Asperger’s Syndrome, Childhood Disintegrative Disorder, Pervasive Developmental Disorder, and Rett Syndrome. Related disorders not specifically included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) are Non Verbal Learning Disorder and Semantic-Pragmatic Communication Disorder.
The classic symptoms tying all these disorders together are developmental delays primarily in the areas of communication (speech and language processing) and socialization (social skills including interactions, relationships, conversation, and play). For the purpose of this article, we will concentrate on discerning two of these disorders so you will be able to tell whether it's non-verbal learning disorder or Asperger's.
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Non Verbal Learning Disorder (NVLD/NLD)
Non Verbal Learning Disorder (NVLD or NLD) is not the same as the malady that afflicts many autistic children who are non verbal, who lack the ability to speak in a normal fashion with words and proper language usage. Children with Non Verbal Learning Disorder appear to process and develop speech and language on a pace equal with their normally developing peers. Often, children with Non Verbal Learning Disorder even speak earlier, with above average to excellent reading and spelling skills. Rather than manifesting as an expressive and receptive speech and language disorder, NVLD instead appears to cause problems in language and communication processing and comprehension, and a number of other areas.
Non Verbal Cues
One of the primary issues that identifies an NVLD child is his or her inability to categorize and differentiate non verbal cues, including emotions, facial gestures, social skills, and tone of voice. If someone ever tells a child with Non Verbal Learning Disorder to “sense the tone” —he or she typically cannot. The child often appears eager to gain social acceptance, yet can overwhelm others with a “clinginess” and inability to behave properly in social settings. Because of the child’s compulsive need to talk and gain attention, he or she often appears rude and egocentric.
In addition to the difficulty in distinguishing non verbal cues, children with NVLD often have trouble with their motor coordination. This can result in awkward or clumsy movements that require large motor skills, and difficulty in fine motor skills with actions such as tying shoes, using scissors, or writing. These children typically don’t like gym class or sports, because they feel uncoordinated and afraid to participate. They take longer to complete an assignment or project because of their lack of coordination.
Another area that Non Verbal Learning Disorder afflicts is a child’s visual-spatial perception or orientation. This integrative problem often manifests in the child focusing on minute details instead of the “big picture.” He or she may feel confused trying to navigate school hallways, looking for the right classroom. When a child with Non Verbal Learning Disorder attempts to fill out a worksheet, he or she may not comprehend where to fill in the answers.
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Asperger's Syndrome (AS)
Asperger’s Syndrome (AS) ranks as a mild or high-functioning form of autism. Children with Asperger’s Syndrome often develop normally and even early in areas of cognition and language. In addition, a diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome often doesn’t occur until the child is in school, well after the age of five. In fact, some people only discover they have Asperger’s Syndrome when they reach adulthood, depending on the mildness or severity of their symptoms.
Similarities to NVLD
Similar to children with Non Verbal Learning Disorder, those with Asperger’s Syndrome typically struggle with proper social skills and behavior. They are unable to differentiate between non verbal cues, and have poor coordination of motor skills. They also often develop at a normal or advanced pace in speech and language, and exhibit above average cognitive development. Children with Asperger’s typically have above-average intelligence and have no problems expressing themselves.
Differences Between AS and NVLD
While the similarities are many between Asperger’s Syndrome and Non Verbal Learning Disorder, a few key differences stand out. Children with Asperger’s Syndrome exhibit less interest in social interaction, to the point that they may seem like loners. They often appear uninterested in developing relationships or returning affection, and lack the ability to express empathy.
In keeping with autistic symptoms, children with Asperger’s Syndrome often become fixated on repetitive behaviors and compulsive organization in keeping their routines, as well as intense focus on discussing a particular topic repeatedly (a behavior known as perseveration).
Another distinction between NVLD and Asperger’s Syndrome is the latter’s impact on a child’s sensory system. Children with Asperger’s Syndrome often experience extreme reactions to sensory stimuli, at opposite ends of the spectrum. They may have either heightened sensitivities, or total insensitivity that sometimes leads to injury when they don’t feel heat or pain.
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Autism-Help.org. Help with Autism, Asperger’s syndrome, PDD-NOS, and related disorders. Retrieved from http://www.autism-help.org/index.htm
Pediatric Neurology. Autism Spectrum Disorders: Non-Verbal Learning Disorders. Retrieved from http://www.pediatricneurology.com/autism.htm%20Pediatric%20Neurology.
Autism Spectrum Disorders: Non-Verbal Learning Disorders. Retrieved from http://www.pediatricneurology.com/autism.htm%20Autism-Help.org.
Characteristics of Asperger’s Syndrome. Retrieved from http://www.autism-help.org/aspergers-characteristics-signs.htm