What are the Signs and Symptoms of NVLD?

NVLD vs. Autism Decoding Neurodevelopmental Differences
Dr. Roseann Capanna-Hodge

Dr. Roseann Capanna-Hodge

A child or teen with a non-verbal learning disability learns differently than their peers. They experience social difficulties and have problems with solving mathematical equations. For these kids, navigating, socializing, and learning in school can be very difficult, especially in mathematics.

Children who have learning disorders or disabilities often struggle so much in school. Worse, most of them don't get diagnosed early because these bright kids just get missed. Learning disabilities affect their motivation and self-esteem, leading to many other difficulties in the future.  

What is NVLD?

What is NVLD

NVLD means Non-Verbal Learning Disorder. It is a brain-based condition affecting a person's abstract thinking, social functioning, spatial relationships, and mathematical abilities. A child or teen with NVLD has poor social skills because they have difficulties interpreting social cues. 

The exact cause of NVLD has not been determined yet, but some studies indicate that it could be due to inefficiencies in the functions and processes of the right and left sides of the brain (Volden, 2002). NVLD can appear more than once in families, or a child can be the first to experience it in a family, which means it isn't purely genetic.

This learning disability impacts the child's ability to use and learn from nonverbal cues or information, which is very similar to its “cousin” autism. As a result, children and teens with NVLD often need help understanding the big picture. These kids will also have issues with math, reading, and understanding implied meaning.

Understanding non-verbal cues, such as body language, facial expression, and tone of voice, is especially challenging since social interaction relies on these nonverbal cues. Children with NVLD don't understand these cues and struggle with social skills.  

Such kids may recognize social cues but miss the nuances that other children intuitively understand. These kids also can't understand the relationship between causes and effects and can't anticipate the possible consequences of their actions. These difficulties cause frustration and can be a point of irritation or even anger because they just don't “see” those gray areas.

It is essential to make it clear that NVLD doesn't mean kids who suffer from it are nonverbal. On the contrary, children with NVLD tend to have higher verbal skills. Some have strong language, rote memory, and verbal reasoning skills. These strong verbal skills help a child with NVLD compensate for social and mathematical difficulties.

For that reason, these same difficulties mask their disabilities, and kids with NVLD frequently remain undetected until they reach middle or high school. When their school work gets more challenging, their problems may become more apparent. Parents may see it at home when their frustration with homework highlights their difficulties in inferring and interpreting.

Major Problems of Kids with NVLD

Major Problems of Kids with NVLD

Below are the five areas where children with NVLD may show weakness. Kids with NVLD may suffer from some or all of them.

#1 Spatial and visual awareness

Kids with NVLD may have issues with visual imagery. They will have a hard time copying an image from their mind. For example, if a child with NVLD is to draw a cylinder from memory, their drawing would look profoundly distorted. These kids have problems perceiving the shape and the forms making up that shape, including their relationship with each other.

These kids will also have issues with evaluating visual-spatial information. Children with visual-spatial struggles have problems understanding the relationship between things they see and having a sense of where they are, which makes them feel awkward.

#2 Executive Functions

Kids with NVLD mostly have executive functioning issues. Executive functioning refers to the skill sets used to organize, plan, carry out actions, and solve problems. Many children with NVLD exhibit weaknesses in planning and organizing tasks. They can't break down a project into smaller pieces and do the steps needed to finish it. Moreover, their difficulties in making inferences and visual processing further compound their executive functions. 

#3 Higher-Order Comprehension

Higher-order comprehension refers to the child's ability to grasp the main ideas and the essential details supporting those ideas. Therefore, it affects a kid's comprehension abilities, which is necessary when writing, reading, and telling a story.

In school, children with inferential comprehension issues have problems with note-taking. It's either they take down everything or nothing at all because they need to know what is essential. It makes the child's teacher and parents think they are not paying attention. 

#4 Math Concepts

Children with NVLD rarely have rote learning issues, meaning they can memorize data. However, as they grow older, children with NVLD struggle when solving advanced math problems, especially those that require recognizing patterns and concepts. As math gets more complex, one needs to identify problems they have seen before.

#5 Social Communication

Children with NVLD have problems interpreting emotions in body language and facial cues, which makes them feel awkward during social interactions. These kids also tend to miss specific social patterns typical kids automatically pick up. 

Like autistics, they may need to learn the appropriate behavior in particular social situations with explicit support. Their issues communicating socially often cause them to turn to technologies such as video games so they don't have to stress about these nonverbal cues.

Symptoms and Signs of NVLD

Symptoms and Signs of NVLD

Here are some NVLD symptoms that mental health professionals observe in children with this disorder.

  • Inability to understand or read non-verbal cues like body language and facial expressions 
  • Can't identify or understand sarcasm
  • Problems recognizing other people's emotions 
  • Issues grasping visual information
  • Trouble judging distance and spatial relationships 
  • Difficulty with physical coordination
  • Problems prioritizing information
  • Inferior problem-solving skills
  • Can't understand complex math concepts
  • Talks too much
  • Can't break down projects into smaller pieces 
  • Below-average planning and organizational skills

Diagnosing NVLD

Mental health professionals specializing in NVLD and similar disorders can help evaluate kids and diagnose the signs and symptoms of NVLD in your child. It is diagnosed with formal neuropsychological testing that is administered one-to-one. In addition, they will assess the patient's language and speech development in social areas, performance and verbal IQ, motor coordination, and visual-spatial skills. 

Scores in such areas matter less than the kid's overall weaknesses and strengths, which match the typical patterns of NVLD. It's vital to get the proper diagnosis of NVLD as it can also be mistaken for other neurological conditions, such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and autism.

A mental health practitioner may recommend medications for ADHD which aren't designed for kids with NVLD. ADHD medications may worsen the symptoms of NVLD or cause other complications. Regarding NVLD, getting a correct diagnosis and initiating early intervention is important, especially in social areas.

Treatment for NVLD

Treatment for NVLD

Kids and teens with NVLD may get misdiagnosed for other mental health conditions like ADHD. This disorder is not correctly identified in many children until they reach middle or high school. Associated issues and behaviors are sometimes challenging to manage as children may struggle socially and academically. A complete evaluation identifies strengths and weaknesses and gives parents a plan of action.

Neurofeedback

Kids with NVLD have underactive brainwave activity in the areas of the brain related to visual processing and overactive brainwave functioning in terms of brain communication. That means the left and right sides of the brain communicate poorly and reflect rigid processing. The main brain areas that handle processing and learning must communicate flexibly and quickly for efficient processing. 

Neurofeedback helps improve the connectivity of the left and right sides of the brain to function more efficiently. Regular neurofeedback therapy reinforces the brain and helps it self-regulate for better timing and connectivity. Neurofeedback will improve a child's language processing, learning, and social skills (Jacobs, 2006).

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Coaching

Parenting children with NVLD is overwhelming. Children need therapeutic coaching from their parents for support. Children will also greatly benefit from behavioral support and direct counseling. With cognitive behavioral therapy and coaching, parents and kids learn helpful ways to self-regulate and interact socially appropriately. A study shows CBT may help with NVLD (Bekirogullari, 2018). Focusing on social skills is a long-term process that warrants explicit support and reinforcement. 

References 

Bekirogullari, Z. (2018). Cognitive Behavioural Therapy in treating persons with learning disabilities. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED593577.pdf

Jacobs, E. H. (2006). Neurofeedback Treatment of Two Children with Learning, Attention, Mood, Social, and Developmental Deficits. Journal of Neurotherapy, 9(4), 55–70. https://doi.org/10.1300/j184v09n04_06

Volden, J. (2002). Nonverbal Learning Disability. ASHA Leader, 7(19), 4. https://doi.org/10.1044/leader.ftr1.07192002.4

 

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She is the founder and director of The Global Institute of Children’s Mental Health and Dr. Roseann Capanna-Hodge. Dr. Roseann is a Board Certified Neurofeedback (BCN) Practitioner, a Board Member of the Northeast Region Biofeedback Society (NRBS), Certified Integrative Medicine Mental Health Provider (CMHIMP) and an Amen Clinic Certified Brain Health Coach.  She is also a member of The International Lyme Disease and Associated Disease Society (ILADS), The American Psychological Association (APA), Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) National Association of School Psychologists (NASP), International OCD Foundation (IOCDF) International Society for Neurofeedback and Research (ISNR) and The Association of Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback (AAPB).

© Roseann-Capanna-Hodge, LLC 2023

Disclaimer: This article is not intended to give health advice and it is recommended to consult with a physician before beginning any new wellness regime. *The effectiveness of diagnosis and treatment vary by patient and condition. Dr. Roseann Capanna-Hodge, LLC does not guarantee certain results.

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