Nonverbal Learning Disabilities (NLD)

Byron P. Rourke, cofounder of the Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology, is considered to be the first professional to have coined the term “nonverbal learning disorder” or NLD. In 1995, Rourke edited a definitive text on the neuordevelopmental manifestations of what he termed the Syndrome of Nonverbal Learning Disabilities.

As you read Rourke’s description of the NLD child’s strengths and weaknesses, you’ll note that the description of the NLD matches the type of child who is likely to have difficulties in visual processing, and who often “falls through the cracks”.

The NLD child is considered to have primary strengths in simple motor function, auditory perception, and rote learning of repetitious acts. Secondary strengths occur in selective attention for verbal material, and rote memory for verbal information. Children with NLD tend to spell phonetically.

Primary weakness for the NLD child occur in bilateral coordination of the body and in visual perceptual skills. There is impaired discrimination and recognition of visual detail and visual relationships, as well as deficiencies in visual-spatial-organizational abilities. Visual attention tends to be poor, and there is persistent difficulty in problem solving and complex concept formation. Reading comprehension is much poorer than is single-word reading (decoding). These weaknesses tend to get worse over time.

All too often, children with NLD have their visual weaknesses managed by “accommodations” in school or at home. In other words, the only help offered is to lessen the demand on their visual skills (see the discussion on “Section 504 Accommodations” elsewhere on this site). But parents of children with NLD deserve to know that more can be done.

The Clinical Practice Guidelines of the ICDL (Interdisciplinary Council on Developmental and Learning Disorders), available through, notes that if a child with NLD is taught by optometric techniques to enhance motor awareness, motor memory, and motor integration, and this improvement is transferred to the academic arena, significant benefits can be realized. Vision therapy is one of many interdisciplinary interventions necessary for these individuals (pp. 250-251). In the same volume, a colleague of ours, Dr. Harry Wachs, has a detailed chapter on visual-spatial thinking, which details these optometric techniques used to help NLD children (pp. 517-536).

Marcia Rubenstein, an educational consultant based in West Hartford, CT, recently published a book oriented to parents, entitled: Raising NLD Superstars: What Families with Nonverbal Learning Disabilities Need to Know About Nurturing Confident, Competent Kids. She notes (p.164) that some developmental optometrists examine children who are having problems in school and recommend vision therapy to treat conditions such as deficient eye teaming, tracking problems, or problems with visual memory. She concludes: “Many parents of NLDers attest to the success of vision therapy and to the sustained accomplishments of their children after treatment.”