Learning Disabilities

What Does Nonverbal Learning Disorder Look Like in Children?

Nonverbal learning disorder will change in appearance as your child grows, and no two kids with NLD exhibit the same symptoms. Get an age-by-age breakdown of common signs, both at school and at home, to better understand how NLD manifests.

Upset ADHD child being teased by another child on the elementary school grounds
Upset ADHD child being teased by another child on the elementary school grounds

The symptoms of nonverbal learning disorder are seldom apparent early in life. Toddlers with NLD are often charming and chatty, and easily compensate for any difficulties with their highly developed verbal skills. Over time, the other symptoms of NLD — poor social skills, motor difficulties, and struggles to make sense of abstract concepts — become more noticeable and difficult to vault. If left undiagnosed, NLD frequently develops into anxiety or depression during a child’s teen years, when more than a decade of spatial and social difficulties begin to take its toll.

So how can you recognize NLD in your child, and secure treatment before negative consequences take root? Start by understanding what NLD looks like — and how it changes as your child grows — so you can rule out a lookalike condition like ADHD or autism spectrum disorder.

Symptoms at Home

Children with NLD are often called “little professors,” thanks to remarkable early reading and speaking skills that highlight their intelligence and make them seem older than they are. But as these gifted children start attending school and interacting with other students, their behavior and academic records may take a confusing turn. Symptoms of NLD vary by age, and at home might look like:


  • Early speech and language acquisition (talks “like an adult” from a young age)
  • Exceptionally good memory; can memorize songs, stories, and other information quickly
  • Poor coordination; seen as “clumsy” or always “getting in the way”
  • Always asking questions, to the point of being repetitive, annoying, or interrupting the regular flow of conversation
  • Relies almost exclusively on adults for social interaction; seems distant from other kids of the same age
  • Doesn’t physically explore the world; prefers to ask questions to understand what’s going on around him

Elementary and Middle School

  • Trouble recognizing nonverbal cues (facial expressions, body language)
  • Has difficulty zipping zippers, tying shoes, or completing other fine motor-based tasks
  • Needs to verbally “label” information in order to understand it; difficulty comprehending unsaid or spatial information
  • Doesn’t seem interested in exploring her independence; remains overly dependent on parents
  • Over-shares information that is private or unrelated to the topic at hand

High School

  • Extremely “literal;” struggles with sarcasm, innuendo, or other linguistic nuances
  • “Naïve” or overly trusting for his age
  • Difficulty coping with change; may develop inflexible routines around eating, getting dressed, or completing daily tasks
  • Overall challenges often masked by highly advanced verbal skills

Symptoms at School

At school, NLD most prominently impacts a child’s social skills, and may manifest as a pattern of seemingly defiant or out-of-place behavior. Ask your child’s teacher to look for symptoms like:


  • Relies only on the teacher for help; doesn’t ask other students for guidance
  • Far ahead of other students when learning to read
  • Watches other kids play with toys without joining in or playing with the toys himself
  • Struggles to hold crayons, cut things with scissors, or hold small objects

Elementary and Middle School

  • Trouble following multi-step directions; often skips steps or seems unsure where to begin
  • Can read well above grade level, but has difficulty answering questions about what she read
  • Unable to tell when other children are disinterested in speaking; often repeats trivial facts or holds one-sided conversations without noticing
  • Doesn’t seem to notice when she’s being teased, or fails to understand another student’s joking comment

High School

  • Anxious around other students, lashing out frequently in everyday social situations
  • Takes a long time to complete homework or in-class assignments; often runs out of time on tests
  • Struggles to organize thoughts when writing
  • Difficulty making generalizations or seeing the “big picture”

NLD is a complex condition, and it can be hard for parents to know if their child’s assortment of symptoms adds up to anything concrete. If you’re worried about your child’s development, go with your gut and bring up your concerns with a doctor, neuropsychologist, or education professional. They’ll be able to properly sort out symptoms and help you set up the treatment your child needs to thrive.