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Possible Nonverbal Learning Disability

By Inderbir Kaur Sandhu, Ph.D


Q: My 12 year old daughter (7th grade) was identified as gifted and talented. She also has ADD and takes 20 mg of Adderall every am. She spoke early and learned quickly when she was younger. She has NO executive skills, procrastinates on everything, is easily frustrated and becomes overwhelmed when presented multiple processes. She sees a counselor once a week too. School used to be a breeze for her until middle school. She has begun to struggle with math. She gets the how to, but can't seem to apply it in different situations and circumstances. She also has a math tutor. Her grades are still good (B's and C's).

She has a 504 plan for assistance with her ADD. She receives accommodations for notes/ study guides, refocusing, and checking her assignment notebook for accuracy and clarification. She doodles rather than takes notes and gets caught up in the lecture rater than taking the notes. I had to fight for the 504 plan because of her grades. She was tested for a auditory processing disorder, but there were no significant discrepancies.

She was given the Cognitive Abilities Test in 2nd grade at age 7 and scored: verbal- 89, quantitative- 105, nonverbal- 117, composite- 104. I feel that something is just not right. I know these scores are in the average range, but there is a significant discrepancy between her verbal and nonverbal scores. The school does not want to test for a learning disability, but could she have a non verbal learning disability? If so, what sort of accommodations would benefit her? What else can I look for to help her?

A: Firstly, a little about Nonverbal Learning Disability (NLD). This diagnosis is believed by some to be a neuropsychological disability; however, there is no distinct diagnostic category. It appears that quite a number of characteristics that is associated with NLD may be similar to those that describe more distinct disorders, such as Asperger's Syndrome and specific learning disabilities.

Children suspected of NLD have specific and typical patterns of strengths and difficulties. Strengths include high verbal IQ scores, ability to memorize and repeat information presented in spoken form, early language development and auditory processing skills. Difficulties are seen in motor skills, complex conceptual skills (problem solving and details), ability to visualize information and understand spatial relations, social skills (e.g., using and understanding nonverbal communication) and activity level. For activity levels, they appear to demonstrate at a younger age and hypoactivity as they get older.

There are quite a few of the above characteristics that appears to show that there is a possibility for your daughter to have NLD, and the discrepancy in her CAT scores does indicate some kind of concern for her verbal abilities. Her problem with Math may be typical for a child with NLD, especially in understanding math concepts and solve problems. This may be made worse with her poor spatial-organization ability, which causes difficulty aligning problems on a page to solve them correctly. She should be tested for a learning disability; however, because this disorder does not have a distinct category, the school may not have a provision for such students. For the school, she may not be seen as having a learning disability.

You also mentioned that school was a breeze for her until middle school. This is probably because as she matures her deficits become more pronounced. With more school work and social situations that require abilities such as abstract thinking and nonverbal communication, it is not surprising that her deficits in those areas will become more apparent.

You may want to see a neuropsychologist or a clinical psychologist to determine if she has NLD. A battery of test would be used to test abilities that include intelligence, motor and psychomotor, tactile-perceptual, visual-spatial and organizational, auditory perceptual, auditory and visual attention/memory, problem solving, language, academic achievement, and personality/adaptive behavior. These are also the areas that you may want to help her with. Professional advice need to be sought here.

An interesting article on parenting a child with NLD. Best of luck!


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