Learning Disabilities

What Does Nonverbal Learning Disorder Look Like in Adults?

Nonverbal learning disorder was a largely misunderstood and misdiagnosed condition until quite recently, which means adults who grew up navigating its visual, motor, and social symptoms may still be in need of treatment.

Woman with ADHD is sending signals to her husband
Woman with ADHD is sending signals to her husband

Nonverbal learning disorder is a little-known condition that is characterized by visual/spatial challenges, motor difficulties, and trouble understanding nonverbal information — body language, innuendos, and abstract concepts. It’s not fully understood — and isn’t currently listed in the DSM — but it can affect anyone of any age, and can cause life-long problems if left untreated.

Adults who grew up with undiagnosed NLD often remember challenging childhoods — struggles to learn how to tie their shoes or ride a bike, difficulty making friends or getting along with classmates, and a string of misunderstandings that created friction with parents, teachers, and the world around them. Even for those people who learned to compensate for their challenges, NLD carries a steep price tag — a lifetime of feeling odd or incompetent can lead to a mood disorder, anxiety, and low self-esteem.

If you think you may be struggling with NLD, seek a diagnosis as soon as possible. Occupational therapy or social skills training are helpful at any age, and simple accommodations may make day-to-day tasks easier to manage. Adults who got an NLD diagnosis later in life often express relief that they “finally knew what was going on” — even if they missed out on early treatment that may have made a difference.

[Self-Test: Could You Have Dysgraphia?]

Symptoms at Home

What does NLD look like? There is no straightforward answer. Since it affects everyone differently, NLD can manifest in social relationships, motor skills, daily routines — or all of the above. Symptoms at home might include:

  • Unable to understand when your spouse or family members are joking; often accused of being “too literal”
  • Anxious in social situations
  • Trouble reading maps or interpreting charts
  • A “homebody;” little interest in exploring the world or doing new things
  • Tendency to “over-share” private information, or continue talking even when social cues indicate the conversation is unwanted
  • Trouble dealing with change or unexpected setbacks, like a traffic jam
  • May develop an inflexible routine for waking up, going to the store, or other common tasks, becoming upset if the routine is interrupted
  • Struggles to do two things at once; tunes out spouse’s voice while driving, for instance
  • Difficulty understanding the rules of games

Symptoms at Work

NLD can create challenges in the workplace, as you struggle to manage your time, understand directions, and navigate office politics. Symptoms in the workplace vary, but may look like:

  • Becomes disoriented with the office gets rearranged, or becomes upset when asked to switch desks with someone
  • Trouble following multi-step directions; often skips steps or leaves work undone
  • Difficulty holding a pen or using other small objects at work
  • Difficulty comprehending unsaid information or drawing reasonable conclusions without being told directly
  • Can read a lot of information quickly, but can’t always answer questions about what was read
  • Trouble planning tasks; often misses deadlines
  • Known as a “chatterbox;” often bores co-workers with trivial facts or long-winded monologues
  • When writing, trouble organizing thoughts or getting to the point
  • Asks too many questions; disrupts the flow of conversation or interrupts frequently

[How to Treat the Symptoms of Nonverbal Learning Disorder]

Living with NLD can certainly be challenging — it’s a complex condition, and there’s no one-size-fits-all method of treatment. But depending on your unique challenges and strengths, you can create strategies or set up accommodations that allow you to interpret nonverbal information, bolster relationships, and respond to setbacks. Adults with NLD are often creative, intelligent, and resourceful — with proper diagnosis and a little understanding, there isn’t anything they can’t achieve.

7 Comments & Reviews

  1. Devon Fryer,
    I have a daughter with mild. She has three different professionals she works with Psychiatrist, a Dr. of psychology and a Dr of immunology for undiagnosed body pain. They all say they know about NLD and they treat my daughter but she is 20 years old still at home and not strong enough to go out every day because of fatigue.thier all doing treatments and prescription and the only updates they get are from my wife and I. We are going broke. You talk about treatment plans for NLD but a lot of other things come a long with it. If you really want to help find a hospital facility that treats everything under NLD depression, anxiety, harm , nutrition,loneliness and social skills. Do you know of a facility? All the specialists are to busy writing papers and not helping patients in need. NYS has one of the highest concentration of medical and academic professionals. So why do 3-8 grade teachers treat NLD kids as lazy and psychiatrists diagnose as ADHD. NLD is an invisible disease.

  2. Hello, i have this. And my mother has this. I don’t know if i would call something that keeps me at home without a job mild? I am sorry for what you’re going thru. There has to be another way for your family financially. Going broke is not okay or acceptable. Maybe they need to pay y’all to research,your daughter. Unfortunately writing papers *is* helping people, as this is still something to be understood. If all the necessary literature were written already you would not be in this mess.You must surely see that? I get the impression you are upset with the doctors themselves? I do not think enough is known about NLD yet. If enough was known there would be treatments, or greater established treatments. If there were no treatments or people for whom treatments failed then there would be resources. Since there are no real resources yet that shows that the work needs to be done in documenting and establishing NLD. Other than that no you sould not be going broke! How can,they make money off you for something they don’t know how to treat in a well established manner? They should paying you to study your daughter!? Am i wrong? What are the benefits they promise as is from these specialists? And are these benefits specifically documented for NLD? Sounds to me like they are learning from her and you are paying for it. ??. Can i ask you are these professionals all assigned through a hospital?
    Also my body pain went away with not eating foods im allergic to. Foods that cause me pain are gluten, all poultry and egg, lamb (wool and lanolin as well of course), certain fish species, seaweed/kelp, ragweed related plants, and the allium family onion and garlic. I also avoid carrot mustard and celery and get pain from those. With a few more other allergies that cause more irritations than pain. Like shea and hemp. Well quinoa causes me intestinal bleeding, but surprisingly no pain. And sage causes a pre-anaphylactic reaction. Means it could go in that direction and i would not know until. But its not guarunteed to.

  3. Hi, I’m Calvin. My NLD was diagnosed at age 45 in 2002. The neuropsychologist who diagnosed me had been in practice for 35 years. He said he’d seen that tendency, but never to that degree. The gap in my IQ subtests is more than 4 standard deviations, which puts me in essentially unknown territory. That particular doctor was retiring right then, literally packing boxes as he tested me, and he did zero follow-ups. I was not aware of any treatment for the NLD. (I’d appreciate tips on that.)

    Once I began to recover from one of my many other issues (alcoholism), I attended a 2-year college, went into a related field without graduating, and held jobs for twenty years. I accumulated a good, clean driving record during that time, although I’m aware of issues around it that I’ve kept hidden from others. I was also married for eight years, and that ended peacefully for unrelated reasons. Eventually, I became disabled due to a mysterious sleep issue. (I can’t predict whether I’ll be wide awake, very sleepy, or actually asleep. It’s similar to narcolepsy but gives different brain waves when tested.) I live alone without any kind of support for my NLD.

    To the father who posted above, I respond from my experience as a person with NLD and various other diagnoses. If your daughter’s life is to improve, she must take responsibility for it. Help her in practical ways, love her and tell her so, but she must lead the way. I have no idea where/how to find social supports for the simple reason that I have not looked for them. There’s no reason to believe my sleep issue is connected to my NLD, although I speculate that it could be. The depression, etc., are familiar and results mostly from the long-term frustration of this and my other issues. Addressing them has helped address the depression and anxiety, but I’ve had to respect my condition and love myself as I was. It’s probably a good idea for her to have a thorough medical checkup and bring up whatever she can imagine “might” be an issue. I wish both of you all the best.

  4. I also have a daughter 20 yrs old who has nvld. If I Read one more article on treatments I’m going to scream….my daughter has 2 psychologists weekly, a psychiatrist who is her 5th in 9 yrs, they are useless and spend 5-10 min max when they see her & only prescribe Antidepressants and …….ADHD medication. She also has a speech language pathologist who after 10 weeks said she doesn’t need to see her bc she is finding it hard to challenge her & she would be better served seeing someone for her anxiety. We got her a SLP because all the NVLD websites and numerous books I have on NVLD said for treatment to see an SLP……my daughter has nightly mental breakdowns where she cries for sometimes up to 3 hours because life is so hard. She attends college near our home….has not had a friend since 7th grade, She still isn’t driving and she could not even hold a summer job because her anxiety is so bad her boss noticed and had to let her go….. I am POSITIVE social skills training would be helpful but does that even exist??? This is a NIGHTMARE disorder and the clinicians and doctors need to wake the hell up and until this is in the DSM there will be no doctors specializing in nvld, no treatment and no help period for our children…..I now know why the doctor at Weill Cornell who diagnosed her in 4th grade said there is a high incidence of suicide among young adults when they get older if there is not early intervention….what she did not tell me was good luck finding that “intervention”…..to the father that posted above you are spot on!,,,,

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