Imagine: Nonverbal Learning Disorder and Vulnerability

Having NLD increases the likelihood that an individual, lacking a proper verbal explanation, will misinterpret events. While people without NLD or another disorder that affects spatial processing can look at people and rapidly assess their facial expressions, vocal inflections, and kinetic movements, a person who has NLD must work to decode these aspects of interaction. Just walking around and maintaining one’s balance is akin to a more coordinated person’s walking on a balance beam. (I am not implying that someone with NLD is barred from being athletic.)

Without the benefit of a verbal explanation, there is no reasonable or fair way to expect an NLD-affected person to effectively interpret the stimuli around them. I need my family and friends to, literally tell me what’s going on—not because I’m an idiot or slow, but because I’m not going to figure it out from nonverbal messages by themselves. Too often, I think, people with NLD are left alone, uselessly and inappropriately slogging in external misconceptions. It is a disservice not to explain a situation to someone with this disorder. One can’t dispense blame to a person with a right-hemisphere disorder for getting lost. Imagine being a young child feeling turned around in your own home. Imagine being an adult constantly misplacing objects and having extreme difficulty recalling where they were last left. Think about all the communication that is necessary for a strong relationship. We all deserve to know parameters; to deprive a person of their definitions only compounds the universal misunderstanding that characterizes this disorder.

Too often, parents and teachers of NLD children assume their child just “knows” what he or she did wrong. Unfortunately, this lack of establishment leaves the child judging themselves as stupid and the parent feeling frustrated. If people don’t talk about their feelings, I can only make guesses from their most patently displayed facial expressions—these are the surface ones that are held longer and try to see what they’re feeling. Sometimes I make an inaccurate guess, a process which invites argument. I am very sure, from meeting several people with NLD, that most of the arguments we get into begin with misreading visual signals. I think that some of this anger can be prevented by early intervention, but even then, verbal scaffolding must continue. Having a life-lasting disorder should never be marginalized to a five-minute topic.

It is also very important to keep asking someone who has NLD what they think and feel. These individuals are human beings with verbal abilities that can help them become responsible, caring adults who will also benefit society. The flipside of NLD is that it is a constant neurological impediment. It will affect school and career choices. It will require long-term, understanding relationships as opposed to ones that don’t last. NLD is what precipitates the messy floor, the stubbed toe, the twisted ankle, the unusual, inconsistent handwriting, the over-talking, the anxiety. It is good for children with NLD to have siblings and pets. Parents need to be mindful of their children’s sensitivity and help them turn some of it into compassion.

Adulthood NLD crops up in friendships and romantic encounters. So much of dating is fiercely nonverbal. Dating is inherently awkward, but imagine wanting to make an important comment, feeling your mouth begin to form the words, but not being able to say it for fear of interrupting or being mocked. Sometimes an overly kind person, one who has previously been abused, has problems asserting themselves. It just follows from a history of mixed-up socialization. NLD-concerned people must help make the world NLD-friendly. Otherwise people will continue to have trouble knowing NLD-affected peoples’ true capabilities. They will keep labeling NLD-related mistakes as bad behavior. And people with NLD will struggle with how to conceptualize their cognitive strengths and weaknesses.


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