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.