Is It ADHD or Nonverbal Learning Disorder?

Parents and doctors frequently confuse ADHD and nonverbal learning disorder. Here’s a guide to figuring out if your child has NLD — and how to treat it if he does.

Nonverbal learning disorders frequently go unrecognized - or are mistakenly diagnosed as ADD. ADDitude Magazine
   
 

NLD Resources

>> Raising NLD Superstars (Jessica Kingsley Publishers), by Marcia Brown Rubinstien.

>> The Source for Nonverbal Learning Disorders (LinguiSystems), by Sue Thompson.

>> nldline.com features articles, discussion groups, and information for children and adults with NLD.

>> nldontheweb.org provides information about interventions, local resources, and more.

 
   

Marci G. started talking when she was 15 months old. By age three, she was reading The Cat in the Hat. Her parents started calling her their "little professor" because of her incessant questions and articulate chatter.

"She soaked up words like a sponge," her mother, Irene, recalls. But unlike other children her age, Marci, who lives in New York City, never liked the sandbox or the playground. More interested in talking to her parents than playing with her peers, she preferred asking questions to physically exploring the world around her.

Marci did well academically in grades one and two, although she didn't have many friends. Her third-grade teachers said she seemed inattentive in class, blurted out inappropriate comments, and bumped into classmates clumsily when they lined up for recess.

Later that year, Marci was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder (ADD ADHD). But Ritalin didn't help. Neither did Adderall.

By sixth grade, Marci was all but friendless. She had stopped finishing classroom assignments and often left her homework incomplete. Given her obvious intelligence, her teachers considered her C average evidence of laziness or defiance. At this point, Marci was diagnosed with oppositional defiant disorder (ODD). But behavioral therapy - the standard treatment for ODD - was no more helpful to her than Ritalin or Adderall had been.

Not until seventh grade did Marci and her parents learn the true problem: Marci has a nonverbal learning disorder, or NLD - a condition that doesn't respond to the treatment regimen commonly used to treat ADD.

What is a nonverbal learning disorder?

Nonverbal learning disorder (NLD) is a constellation of brain-based difficulties. Once considered rare, NLD is now thought to be as prevalent as dyslexia. Strongly genetic in origin, NLD affects girls as freqently as boys and is characterized by poor visual, spatial, and organizational skills, poor motor performance, and difficulty recognizing and processing nonverbal cues - body language, facial expression, and the nuances of conversation.

Like Marci, most NLD children have large vocabularies, outstanding memory and auditory retention, and average to superior intelligence. Also like Marci, NLD kids are often misdiagnosed with ADD.

"Virtually every child I've seen with NLD was first diagnosed with ADD," says Marcia Rubinstien, an education specialist in West Hartford, Connecticut, and founder of the Nonverbal Learning Disability Association. "Pediatricians ought to be able to recognize NLD and refer children for an evaluation, but teachers and medical professionals are more aware of language-based learning disabilities. That's why every parent of a child with NLD has to become a fulltime advocate for their child."

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