Nonverbal Learning Disability
Brain and Nervous System

What Is a Nonverbal Learning Disability?

A nonverbal learning disability often affects a child's spatial reasoning, motor skills, and social skills, but because children with this challenge often have advanced verbal skills, it can be easy to miss. Kids with this type of learning disability often seem precocious and highly capable until they start having difficulty with nonverbal skills as they get older.

Although there is growing consensus, there is still disagreement among health care professionals regarding whether the condition even exists. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) does not include a nonverbal learning disability, and it is not recognized as a disability that's covered by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Symptoms of a Nonverbal Learning Disability

There is some controversy within the medical community about what causes the symptoms of a nonverbal learning disability. According to the Learning Disabilities Association of America, common symptoms include difficulty with social skills, motor skills, and understanding spatial relationships, such as:

  • Understanding social cues such as body language, sarcasm, and humor, and respecting personal space.
  • Either craving sensory stimulation or easily becoming overstimulated.
  • Experiencing difficulty with problem-solving, particularly in new situations.
  • Retaining details, but having difficulty identifying a general theme.
  • Poor organization.
  • Struggling with transitions.
  • Staying focused.
  • Solving math problems.
  • Using scissors, handwriting, throwing or catching a ball, tying shoes, or riding a bike.

A key characteristic of this type of learning disability is the discrepancy between advanced verbal skills and difficulty with fine motor skills, spatial reasoning, and social skills. Although this learning disability may be difficult to identify early on because of the advanced verbal skills, the symptoms become more apparent as kids get older. This is because social interactions become more difficult and spacial skills such as tying shoes or handwriting become an issue.

As these differences emerge, children with this type of learning disability may develop anxiety regarding their difficulty interpreting social cues.

Diagnosis and Management

Despite the fact that nonverbal learning disabilities are not listed in the DSM-5, you can have your child evaluated to identify strengths and weaknesses that would fall under the condition. The process of identifying this type of learning disability starts with your pediatrician, who will assess your child's general health and rule out other conditions that could cause these difficulties. The pediatrician can then refer you to a mental health professional who will evaluate your child and make recommendations on how to proceed.

Because there is no official diagnosis of a nonverbal learning disability, there is no standard course of treatment. However, once you receive recommendations from the mental health professional, take these back to your child's teacher to make a plan for classroom accommodations. provides several strategies for working with children with a nonverbal learning disability, such as:

  • Allowing them time and space to talk through issues and new concepts. Kids with this type of challenge process information verbally, and they may need to talk their way through a concept.
  • Giving them ample warning before transitions; moving to a new activity can be difficult.
  • Making sure they truly understand and are not just parroting back details.
  • Having them verbally describe math concepts while they work.
  • Reminding them of how they worked through similar challenges in the past.

Kids with nonverbal learning disabilities are smart, but they process information differently. Helping them to understand these differences and the way their brain works will help them to learn ways to work through, and overcome, these challenges.

Posted in Brain and Nervous System

Judy Schwartz Haley is a freelance writer and blogger. She grew up in Alaska and now makes her home in Seattle with her husband and young daughter. Judy battled breast cancer when her daughter was an infant, and now she devotes much of her free time to volunteering as a state leader with the Young Survival Coalition, which supports young women with breast cancer.

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*This information is for educational purposes only and does not constitute health care advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor or physician before making health care decisions.