Servicing Nonverbal Learning Disorders

Servicing nonverbal learning disorders
Nonverbal learning disorders are often overlooked educationally because the student is, as a means of compensating, very verbal. He has a highly developed memory for rote verbal information so early reading and spelling skills usually constitute a strong domain. If you observe all, or most, of the early adjustment problems detailed earlier in this article, an intelligence screening may support your suspicions. An IQ measure, such as the WISC-III, which reveals a performance IQ (PIQ) scale score depressed (by 10 - 15 points or more) relative to the student's verbal IQ (VIQ) score, denotes a deficient right-hemisphere system.

It is not relevant to the diagnostic process whether one or both of these scores is above the norm; the crucial determinate is the relative discrepancy between the VIQ and PIQ. It is not unusual for a child with nonverbal learning disabilities to have a VIQ in the very superior range. When subtest scores are grouped, the verbal conceptualization cluster will generally be the strongest for the child with NLD while the spatial cluster will be the weakest.

Depending upon the severity of the disorder, and also upon the child's intelligence and the coping techniques which she has already put into place, the discrepancy can be 20 points or more. This is severe and warrants immediate attention no matter what the child's full-scale IQ (FSIQ). You are not merely discovering that the child has a dominance of the left cerebral hemisphere, but rather that she is having difficulty accessing the processes specialized in the right cerebral hemisphere. A 10-point discrepancy is generally considered significant.

Once a child has been diagnosed, parents should not accept the rationale of some well-meaning professionals who may tell them that NLD will play a minor role in their child's ability to perform well in school. Physicians and psychologists may assume that a child with superior expressive language skills can easily compensate for a deficit in nonverbal skills. This assumption is true only in relation to the child's capacity to "parrot" back school work in the early grades and does not address the child's inability to "flow through life."

As the child moves into the higher grades, where less and less will be "spelled out" for him, he will reach a point where functioning in school is impossible without specific compensations, accommodations, modifications, and strategies (CAMS). The incredible rote memory which served this child very well in the lower grades, before he was asked to interpret and evaluate information, fails him when academic demands shift to more complex applications.

At this point he may cease to try or "burn-out" attempting to succeed under the impossible demands now being placed upon him. Recognizing this eventuality and employing interventions early in the child's schooling is certainly preferable to waiting until junior or senior high to accommodate his disability when he finally "bottoms out." Early implementation of CAMS will maximize his success in school. Unless appropriate CAMS are initiated during the elementary years, prognosis for success in school is poor for this child.

A child with NLD is especially inclined towards developing depression and/or anxiety disorders if the nonverbal learning disorders are not recognized early and accommodated in a compassionate, responsible, and supportive fashion. If the child is continually being told by the adults around her, "You could do better, if you really tried," or, "You're just not applying yourself" (both false observations in this case) her level of frustration will naturally intensify and her self-image will plummet. It is not unusual for the child with nonverbal learning disorders to become increasingly isolated and withdrawn as failures in school multiply and intensify.

At this point, the child may be treated for the secondary complaints which now overshadow the underlying primary disorder of NLD. Misdiagnosis, or an incomplete diagnosis (many learning disorders have a comorbid-morbid relation), will only serve to compound the problems a child is experiencing. It is not uncommon for a child with nonverbal learning disorders to be misdiagnosed with conditions such as Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) or emotional disturbance.

Even when a child has been correctly diagnosed with NLD, it may still be difficult for him to receive the program modifications and accommodations he needs in school. After all, he is probably performing at or above grade level on most academic achievement tasks which are routinely measured at school, especially during the early elementary years. Although the deficits in motor, visual-spatial, and social skills may be obvious to any interested and observant persons, these impairments will not necessarily evoke the concern and/or compassion of any but the most caring of teachers.

If the "formula" for language-based (specific) disabilities is called upon, parents may be told that their child does not "qualify" for the Special Education services because there is not a "severe discrepancy" between the child's intelligence and her achievement in the academic areas. In fact, the child's level of accomplishment in academics may even appear to go beyond her potential if the measurement techniques are largely verbal (oral/written). "Overlearning" is common in individuals with the NLD syndrome.

Nonverbal learning disorders constitute a dysfunction in the basic cerebral processes and, as such, denote a disability which warrants specialized support and program modifications for the student. "Traumatic brain injury" was added to IDEA by the Education of the Handicapped Act Amendments of 1990. Since this child's condition seriously interferes with his ability to perform in school, an Individualized Education Program (IEP) can and should be developed and implemented for this child. Or, since this child's NLD impairments "substantially limit one or more major life activities," a 504 plan can be drawn up to help define appropriate accommodations for him.

This child will often have already been mislabeled by unenlightened adults at her school. Today, thankfully, intelligent parents are not so quick to accept educators' misguided declarations that their child is "lazy," "purposefully disruptive," "a troublemaker," "disturbed," "defiant," and/or merely "being annoying" as if these presentations were a diagnosis rather than an indicator of symptoms to be considered within the context of a syndrome. It is always wise to locate the underlying cause of behavioral observations (i.e., a disorder of the central nervous system) so that appropriate, helpful, and nonpunitive measures can be implemented, knowing that the child's behavior is not deliberate and that mistakes and misdeeds are the result of her disability and are unintentional on her part.

© l996 by Sue Thompson, M.A., C.E.T.

After reading this article, I was informed of this type of development disorder. As teachers, we usually visualize our students as verbal in some aspect. I learned that this disorder affects ones processes within the brain, therefore educators must recongnize the disorder and make modifications or accommodations in curriculum to met all students needs.

By: Christia Cave