Non-verbal Learning Deficit: what is this?

Recently, I met a young man who had received an identification of mild dyslexia and Non-verbal Learning Deficit (NLD). When I first met him, I had been impressed by his mature verbal skills, his accomplished drawing skills and his calm and quiet manner. His parents had sought an answer to the combination of difficulties that he was facing each day in his school. The identification of Non-Verbal Learning Deficit was encouraging news for his parents as it recognised some great strengths and gave them a real insight into his difficulties along with some very clear guidance and recommendations for his teachers to help him cope in the busy classroom.

As NLD is not very common it may be difficult for teachers and tutors working with children with dyslexia to identify this subtle learning difference. NLD syndrome reveals itself in impaired abilities to organise the visual spatial field and/or accurately read non-verbal signals and cues. Although academic progress is made pupils with NLD will have difficulty working in situations where speed and adaptability are required.

A pupil with NLD generally presents deviations in three broad aspects of development:

  • motor coordination, including fine graphomotor skills (handwriting)


  • visual spatial organisation, including faulty spatial perceptions and difficulties with spatial relations (mathematics and number concepts)


  • social, including lack of ability to comprehend non-verbal communication, deficits in social judgement and social interaction.


Children with NLD generally have early speech and vocabulary development, remarkable rote memory skills, attention to detail, early reading skills development and excellent spelling skills. In addition, these children have the verbal ability to express themselves eloquently. A child with NLD may present as a very articulate, motivated and cooperative young person who can relate well to adults.

A common problem for children with NLD is a lack of awareness amongst parents and professionals and therefore a delay in obtaining an accurate identification. Often Autistic Spectrum Disorder is suspected. Difficulties are generally picked up late because reading and spelling may be quite strong. However inferential reading comprehension is weak. Mathematics is often the first academic subject to be viewed as problematic because of the spatial and conceptual aspects of mathematics. These can be a problem due to spatial and fine motor difficulties. Generally, handwriting is poor so the whole business of setting out work neatly and in line will be affected. Organisational skills can be weak particularly in written work so writing stories or essays or anything requiring sequencing may be difficult.

So, as a parent of a child with NLD or a tutor supporting the child, the areas which give the most cause for concern would be a very slow processing speed for visual tasks, spatial discrimination and fine motor tasks. The skills which the child excels at: vocabulary skills, attention to detail and literacy skills could be used to the child’s advantage by presenting work verbally as much as possible or using speech to text software. Mathematics should be supported with the use of concrete tools for as long as needed, with a calculator, clear lined and squared paper and addressing specific difficulties using multisensory methods to support the development of number system.

As the pupil develops, and moves onto secondary school and beyond, additional time for work and examinations should be given. Also targeted guidance to understand social and non-verbal communication will be needed. As with all students, but in particular for students with a specific learning difficulty, the use of ICT should be considered at all times.

Sue McKenna. References:

Keeping A Head in School   Dr. Mel Levine .Educators Publishing Service Inc,Cambridge,MA.

Eric Development Team