Yaakov stuck out his hand and said, “Nice to meet you,” when he was introduced to a new classmate. The rest of the students raised their eyebrows and stared at him quizzically, but Yaakov didn’t notice.
He remembered every word his teacher said, but messed up on math problems, adding instead of subtracting and subtracting when he was supposed to add.
He was great at reading individual words and sentences, but he didn’t understand the main idea of the story when his teacher asked. In first and second grade, he was one of the best readers, but as the years progressed, he was falling behind.
He never learned to ride a bike and had some trouble when he needed to use scissors because he could never figure out how to hold them quite right.
As Yaakov got older, he was anxious about meeting new people. Sometimes he just didn’t want to leave the house.
For a lot of educators and parents, Yaakov is an anomaly. He is able to pay attention for long periods of time (ruling out ADHD), he memorizes and speaks sophisticatedly (ruling out many processing disorders), he reads without much difficulty (ruling out dyslexia) and he rarely picks fights with other children (ruling out ODD). So, what’s holding Yaakov back?
Yaakov is exhibiting classic symptoms of Nonverbal Learning Disorder (NLD). Because the children suffering from this disorder generally have wonderful verbal skills, the disability can go unrecognized for many years.
NLD is characterized by predominantly left-brain activity. There are three categories of dysfunction:
Children with NLD have a history of poor motor coordination. The child may constantly “get in the way,” bumping into objects and people. As toddlers, children with NLD will explore their worlds verbally by asking questions, rather than moving around, because they have trouble with balance. To that end, children may have a fear of heights and avoid climbing up on the jungle gym. They also prefer to eat or work on the floor because they feel more secure.
Later, this poor motor coordination causes problems with various skills: bike riding and tying shoes are extremely difficult. These skills can take years to master as opposed to the days or months that other children need. In school, children with NLD will have trouble grasping the pen and writing. Often, they are described as “drawing” rather than writing when attempting to create compositions, as they create each letter from memory.
Children with NLD do not form visual images and therefore cannot create a visualization of something they have seen previously. Instead, they focus on the details and fail to see the “total picture.”
As a result, children with NLD will firmly connect themselves to an adult so that they can continually dialogue with him or her about what is going on around them. They need to verbally label everything that happens in order to memorize and comprehend what most people effortlessly recognize and internalize. Rather than store memories visually, those with NLD store them verbally. For this reason, they don’t enjoy going to new places or trying new things as they can’t figure out the clues that others assimilate naturally.
This lack of memory causes all writing tasks to be slow and arduous. In addition, copying accurately from the board or a book is impractical and agonizing for these children.
As children with NLD have trouble recognizing nonverbal behavior such as change in tone, facial expression, or physical proximity, they miss the bulk of communication. Though they want to conform socially, they often struggle to fit in and are labeled by their peers as “annoying” or “awkward.”
About the Author: An acclaimed educator and social skills specialist, Mrs. Rifka Schonfeld has served the Jewish community for close to thirty years. She founded and directs the widely acclaimed educational program, SOS, servicing all grade levels in secular as well as Hebrew studies. A kriah and reading specialist, she has given dynamic workshops and has set up reading labs in many schools. In addition, she offers evaluations G.E.D. preparation, social skills training and shidduch coaching, focusing on building self-esteem and self-awareness. She can be reached at 718-382-5437 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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