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How my non-verbal learning disability (NLD) affects me in the classroom

Updated on November 18, 2011

A metaperspective on how some smart people fail, or...

Alright, so I haven't been a *student* (with regard to my role or in the "classic" sense) in the classroom for a number of years. And, in an ironically astute bit of self-control, I am going to resist the second impulse I had to interpret this title literally and report on how NVLD has impacted my *work* as a paraprofessional - IN THE CLASSROOM!

But, that is a very good starting point for describing one of the more poignant, confounding and often embarrassing aspects of living with and seeing the world through the NVLD mind. That common, but by no means universal or necessarily defining characteristic is that of tending to be literal. At times, I can be felled by an acutely literal confusion. Over the years, I have learned to hold my first impression or interpretation in check. I have learned to pause and ask "wait, am I getting the same message as the deliverer of that message is intending to convey?". I have learned, VERY painstakingly and perhaps maladaptively, to procrastinate on making any conclusions or decisions whatsoever. Sometimes this procrastination is moments long, sometimes days. Sometimes years.

The alternative is a continuation of misreads that only grow more stigmatizing as I age, and expectations of sophisticated, *adult* social and pragmatic skills grow ever higher, and tolerance for any deviation from or failure of said competence is yet, even in 2009, fodder for ridicule, mockery, misinterpration, the "bootstraps" speech, and all the other manifestations of hate and ignorance that is the all too present response to disabilities, *especially* the invisible ones, and EVER more so for an obscure disability like NVLD. It's a miserable choice! But it is one that we with NVLD face every single day. Act on our initial and often mistaken "read", and expose the chasm between the message delivered and the message received, or exercise the learned pause that, when itself kept in check is a very constructive and face-saving behavior and habit, but when confounded by fear, anxiety, or even the yet not understood environment DESPITE this pausing to study it, often upsets, confuses, irritates or otherwise "sticks in the craw" of those who would just as soon accuse you of "having no common sense" and barking out most unhelpful low blows as "I shouldn't have to tell you!".

One of the most life-changing discoveries for me has been the concept of "not knowing that I don't know". In a very meta sort of way, prior to this awareness, I was unaware of the state of being blind to ones own lack of knowing. In other words, I didn't know of this state of mind that is "not knowing that I don't know"! Are you dizzy yet? Let me say right now that Don Rumsfeld did NOT coin that concept or its label. He just made it famous for its 15 minutes in the general publics mindset. Then Britney or Oprah or 50 Cent did something crazy or earth-shattering - like shopping! - and the popular attention was again shifted. And what remains is this pseudo-normalcy that thinks suffering through the confusion is just part of growing up - and/or part of life, period.

I don't think I need to dwell too long on the obvious: this is a severely and painfully unhelpful slap in the face. But it is the reality - *especially* in the workplace, for many people - students or otherwise - and only confounds the *VERY* common anxiety and clinical depression that can result from long-term suffering of this chasm.

Research and popular opinion seems to have concluded that most of us are visual learners. The majority of us learn by processing the sensory and/or kinesthetic aspects of living and learning, and have to be *taught* how to process the written and even spoken word, and to use those words to communicate and understand the world.

For those with Nonverbal Learning Disability, this is anything but the norm. WE devour and adore and absolutely, unequivocally DEPEND on words. We HATE maps. Give us the linear, listed, step by step, WRITTEN OUT *sequence* of navigational maneuvers: 1. Take a left out of the driveway, 2. Go 1.3 miles until you come to the intersection of Main and Smith streets. Take this right onto Smith. Et cetera.

In the classroom, this sort of clarity is often derided as "spoon-feeding", and teachers will even say and believe that they are HELPING the student by making him swim in this unarticulated "trial and error" world. Most people grow and learn adequately in such an environment. For those of us with Nonverbal Learning Disability, it is the longest, darkest, most desperate introduction to a world that will never completely "get" that you don't "get it".

Hence the oft weilded "bootstraps" speech. It has other names. Tough love. Common sense. Learning the hard way. Blah blah. It is devastating. Without direct, precise and VERBAL interaction and instruction - delivered with LABORIOUS and UNAMBIGUOUS clarity, the NVLD student will NOT thrive. He may not even learn. And if he does manage to find his OWN way - it still often comes at a very heavy emotional, social, and ultimately life-course hampering cost. The cost is a LEARNED inaction - a habitual procrastination, an internalized helplessness, and a completely integrated ANTI-intuition!

In the pragmatic and everyday goings-on of normal conversation, communication and interaction - be it in the classroom, in the family, and later in the workplace, this tendency to avoid acting for fear of the impulsive misread, has been both a benefit AND an obstacle. What IS unmistakably clear is that the "bootstraps" and "tough love" and "common sense" ideology that very specifically and directly handcuffs and devastates the growth and learning of the person with NVLD, has NO place in the classroom.

What results is not learning. It is not growth or self-sufficiency. It is the acquisition of a permanent and debilitating self-doubt and confusion that cause the NVLD student - and the entire lifespan of this person - to be a frustrating and unproductive navigation of the onslaught of uninterpretable signals that is never-ending. The only way to prepare this type of learner is through DIRECT TEACHING. Every lesson, every skill he will need in his entire life needs to be direct taught and articulated.

This is true for the NVLD kid. It is likewise true for the NVLD adult. EVERY SINGLE SOLITARY skill and/or function, role or responsibility has to be explained EXPLICITLY, with laborious and hair-splitting (and sometimes head-splitting!) detail, slowly.

And more than once. Because, the first time, the "skeleton" is sorta taking shape. The second time, some of the trees fill in and more grow from the bare ground. The THIRD time, he can KINDA SORTA maybe begin to see SOME of the trees as belonging to a group. Maybe by the FOURTH time, some of these likely (remember, we never commit to an unknown! which makes risk taking and estimating very complicated, confusing, frightening and frustrating, if not thus impossible) groups have gotten bigger and begun to merge with other said groups, the puzzle pieces are, in other words, starting to fit together, and we KINDA have a sense of what the landscape MIGHT look like.

By the FIFTH time, the skeleton, the gestalt, the forest is usually adequately perceptible. THEN - THEN AND ONLY THEN, can the actual INFORMATION be imparted such that the person will have a "place to put it". Otherwise it's just a puzzle piece sitting by itself on a table which means absolutely nothing. It is utterly uninterprettable and not yet trustworthy or comprehendible.

And when the onslaught of information continues (and it always does), the NVLD'er is in the dark after the first minute and but for the patience of a SAINT, HAS TO interrupt the speaker so that he can process and try to contextualize what he was just told.

We don't learn facts. We learn processes. Systems. Routines. Theories. Treatises. The isolated fact to us is a crumb in the middle of the road a mile up the street. It means nothing, it is barely perceptible, and ONLY if we are looking SPECIFICALLY for it!, and so much energy and focus is devoted to figuring it out the the information that keeps on coming and coming and coming and coming passes us RIGHT by.

Until this lesson is LEARNED by those who are charged with teaching the lessons, the NVLD student will continue to float in a, a *hell* - blazing and CONSTANT - of confusion and pain. Given the right tools, preparation, direct skill acquisition, and teaching that respects and utilizes the NVLD student's often astoundingly gifted verbal fluency, maybe - just maybe - he can overcome the crippling inertia that has swallowed his confidence and functioning, and navigate a path in life that is both fulfilling and meaningful.

And no one - NO ONE - has the right to get in his way by making him navigate the neurotypical world that is so, so foreign.


Submit a Comment
  • stanwshura profile imageAUTHOR


    6 years ago

    Trey Love - thank you for a wonderful surprise and a hell of a pick-me-up. Gotta say I was taken aback by the "not wanting to regain the self-esteem" thing. But, I actually think I get it - the motive - in that acquiring something only to lose it again is to suffer twice simultaneously, and the loss of effort, time, emotional TRUST!!!!

    But can I encourage you not to surrender to the depression that THIS hubber knows ALL too damned well - even as I know that depression is the slowing down (or stopping, essentially) of living - never mind the affective state - that's almost an afterthought. And the consequences of TRYING (that is, not having stopped) are palpitations and anxiety that I can personally report having sent my NON-PHYSICALLY EXERTED ("resting" - but I refuse to call it that when you want to rip your skin off and just disappear!) pulse/BPM frequently in the range of 156-168 bpm. Hey, God! I'm not a f/ing hummingbird! Can you slow the motor down, please!!!!!

    Anyway - I hope you find a way to (*SLOWLY* - seriously, I totally get it!!!!) regain some hope and make your way back to having some control over your GOD-GIVEN RIGHT to serenity and peace - and that includes being all right in your own skin. Comment here - or email me whenever - WHENEVER - you might want to chat mano a mano. No pressure. No expectations. Just making the option available and you are free to take it or leave it and I will and DO completely understand either

  • profile image

    Trey Love 

    6 years ago

    Well, I've spent some time recently searching and scouring all I can on the internet about NVLD, finding surprisingly accurate as far as social attitudes goes. I was diagnosed with it 5 or so years ago, and suddenly finding a new interest in reading up on it helps make a lot more sense of the way things have been for me.

    While I can honestly say that i did experience a loving home (Or parents, really) I can honestly say I really haven't felt much love outside of there, leading to the absence of self-esteem (Which I honestly refuse to's all too familiar.) and, of course, social abandonment and excessive feelings of lonliness, which are still current today.

    I wasn't diagnosed until late, so, of course, I never learned a proper coping mechanism and fell to pain. Honestly, I just learned to be patient and don't really have any sort of coping mechanism since I've settled for this failure and lonliness and accept it as commonplace.

    I guess I just wanted to post here and thank you for your wonderful article, and say that i wish you the best in life and that hopefully all of us will get the love, acceptance, and patience that we deserve and want to be shown.

  • Michelle Sarabia profile image

    Michelle Sarabia 

    7 years ago

    I think one of the hardest deals about NVLD is that having it is a lonely and isolated deal. You are made to feel that there is no one else as socially idiotic, willful, rude, tactless... ahem... as you are, and if you're so smart you must be intentionally making everyone else feel miserable for your own smarty-pants kicks, or something.

    When you try to interact, you only get slammed harder... unless you spend tons of energy and effort to learn to put on a theater-level act in which you focus entirely on the body language and "make the other person feel good" social idioms other people need to see and hear from you, rather than working toward a shared goal, sharing an interest, etc. That makes social interaction a real chore. I still am baffled by people who claim to find it relaxing and uplifting.

    I am diagnosed with both NVLD and Aspergers... the key difference between the labels seeming to be the NVLD difficulty with math.

    Until my mid-20's, I was the socially obnoxious smart kid that "just didn't try in math... or with peers." When I tried to pass Calculus for the 3rd time in college, it finally dawned on people that perhaps it wasn't a lack of trying on my part... and I was identified by the college with the NVLD. I wasn't educated about it or provided with social supports, just labeled so that I could do something alternate for the math credit. In the early 90's it was hard to independently find things about NVLD, and so I just thought of it as another way of saying dyscalculia.

    A few years ago, I sought out help from counselors because of trouble at work. I had learned enough about NVLD by then to understand that there was something they wanted from me that they weren't explaining well.

    However, saying I was diagnosed with NVLD and needed some help to at least have some understanding about why people might get mad at me easily, didn't cause any sort of helpful response from anybody. Just, "Use more tact." When I asked how I was supposed to do that, and told that I had to agree with people's falsehoods to make people feel good, and I said I wasn't about to let myself be set up for a fall by agreeing to stuff that wasn't true, I was accused of trying to mess with people.

    The private counselors identified Aspergers. At first, I tried sharing my NVLD diagnosis with my employer. That didn't do anything to help me get the supports I needed to succeed in dealing with socio-emotional needy colleagues. ADA doesn't cover NVLD.

    Sharing an Asperger's diagnosis meant that right now I'm still employed... because I do very well at the actual work of my career beyond the interaction with colleagues bit. Yes, I get along fine with most of my students' parents... we have a shared goal.

    The kicker is that I am a public school teacher and my employer was not about to accommodate NVLD... schools do NOT understand this disorder, and in spite of great advances in implementation of IDEA, don't see anything labeled as a "learning disability" as anything other than needing help to read, write, or figure a math problem.

    If children with a learning disability try hard enough, when given specialized instruction, they BY LAW must "catch up" and do as well as everyone else their age in the area of their disability. And the awesome thing is that for those with academic disabilities, many do, over time, if taught how to deal with it correctly. So, an adult with a learning disability has no excuse for any continuing difficulty...and NVLD is clearly no excuse for having difficulty with the idiomatic subtleties of social interaction. Of course, that reasoning forgets that it is years of specialized instruction that brings children with learning disabilities into range with their peers.

    When seeing how close the labels were, it made me nauseous that all those years I spent being put down and intimidated rather than given positive and real guidance in the scripts other people need to see and hear in order to work together on a shared goal.

    I now work together with several colleagues very well. They know I'm on autism spectrum, and trying to understand and interact in a way that helps get our job done. Several others understand this and "tolerate" me well. I have a couple of people who act as social buffers and as a coach, to help me with those who are less able to "deal" with me. It is effective, and things are much better. The Asperger's diagnosis brought about supports from my employer in dealing with expectations from administrators, etc.

    NVLD should have access to these things as well. I hope that those involved with the ongoing development and improvement of ADA will add it to their list.

  • stanwshura profile imageAUTHOR


    8 years ago

    Ahhh...the perilous catch-22! You reduce (emotional/productive) inertia (at least that which is attributable to life experience that has heretofore *punished* simply being you - in every aspect of your doings and effort and work et al) by reducing the perception of impending harm (doom, ridicule, failure, futility of effort) by...well....*experiencing* less harm!

    Now, if you're already beyond the point of innate belief in your own capability, and the inherent "glass is half full" perspective that comes for most people simply through empirical living (ya learn by doing the life thing), it will require, literally, extra-ordinary effort, accommodation, time and relearning that most neuro-typicals are blessed (and/or spoiled!) to avoid.

    For we with NVLD, this type of learning - the empirical - "learn by doing", "watch and learn", "baptism by fire", "on-the-job", "learning on the go" is absolutely, definitively and quite markedly (and obvious, I'm afraid, to most NTs) UNtenable - we don't "watch and learn" - because we are VERBAL beings. I can tell you that in addition, I am an acutely auditory person as well - being a musician, and in fact possessed of "perfect" pitch - and my aural environment is MUCH MUCH MUCH more important and prominent and relevant in my life than the who-gives-a-@#$! visual stimuli. I can't process it well, remember it well, and thus neither understand nor appreciate it at all well - so why should I care?

    Yes, that's a pinch of bitterness that is the after-taste of the aforementioned exposure to failure and ridicule and criticism.

    Like I started to say - if it's already too late to have the *experience* of life REWARDING initiative more often than not, than the reversal will be unavoidably painful and nerve-wracking - as you have to overcome your *learned* expectation that your effort and pain and time and energy will be uselessly and irretrievably spent - a VERY painful experience indeed when it does happen. The conditioning to avoid said pain is immense - and ever more so the longer it has gone on in the "meta ignorant" state - that of not knowing that you didn't know - which is true for most of us prior to formal diagnosis.

    Your daughter is *going* to need to borrow YOUR strength, enthusiasm, patience, steel, tenacity, and *FAITH* until such time as she has slowly but surely acquired those life experiences that are fulfilling and confidence-boosting.

    As her history of success grows with you alongside her to protect her from the pain beyond that of normal life/childhood/growth, she'll grow stronger and more able to endure the failures that will come her way.

    To mitigate THAT inevitability, she MUST MUST MUST become knowledgeable about her disorder. SHE must learn about herself and how she learns, and then SHE (and/or you) MUST fiercely advocate for an education that respects and nurtures HER learning style.

    THEN, by and by, she WILL become strong and sturdy and self-sufficient.

    -stan :)

  • profile image

    8 years ago

    This is a very helpful post. I have been looking to better understand inertia in my young adult daughter. Seeing inertia as a learned activity designed to avoid "exposing the chasm between the message delivered and the message received" is insightful. I agree with your comments about the classroom experience. Teachers need to become much better educated about non verbally based LDs. What have you discovered is helpful to you in reducing inertia?


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