The start of the school year is here. That means getting the notebooks, pencils and supplies ready for new classes. It also means a new location for the classroom. For some students, finding their way around can be even more challenging than their classes. These students have a “nonverbal learning disability.”
The term “nonverbal learning disability” was coined by Byron Rourke around 1985. However, educators are generally not familiar with it. Nonverbal learning disability is described as difficulty with problem solving that does not involve written or spoken language. Approximately 10% of individuals who have a learning disability have the nonverbal type.
In school, some learning disabilities can be easily observed by teachers. For example, dyslexia is a common type that teachers can pick up on quite early in a child’s education. But what about a disability in which a student has strong verbal skills, a well-developed vocabulary, and a memory for what is said in a lecture but finds navigation around the classroom environment to be hard? Such a student may have a nonverbal learning disability, especially if the child has difficulty with coordination and visual/spatial tasks.
Picture this: a student is in English class and speaks exceptionally well, has a well-developed vocabulary and is a good speller. At break time the student goes to the restroom and gets disoriented and can’t find his or her way back to the class. This is what a teacher would observe in a student who has a nonverbal learning disability.
Students who have nonverbal learning disabilities may excel in areas involving words but have a hard time interpreting information that is presented via maps, graphs, or charts. Math can present a problem; turning visual information into words and spoken language is the way to help them understand the material.
As well as their visual/spatial skills not working very well, their tactile functions are slow, so they can be reluctant to explore their environment. Therefore, in order to learn, individuals ask questions. Auditory learning could be described as the default style for students who have nonverbal learning disabilities — they learn in words.
Despite weaknesses in a variety of areas, as auditory learners, individuals may have musical abilities and be able to follow rhythms. Music and rhythm can be effective tools when teaching subjects that are nonverbal, such as math — rhythm and songs can help students learn their times tables. Students who have nonverbal learning disabilities have something called, “auditory memory” — with practice, they can memorize auditory information.
The concept of the nonverbal learning disability is not well-known among educators but with observation, teachers can recognize the signs and make adaptations for students, such as converting nonverbal subject matter into words.
By having visual information turned into language to accommodate their auditory-specific learning style, students can succeed in school.
Emma Wagner has cerebral palsy, hydrocephalus and epilepsy. She was diagnosed with a nonverbal learning disability but has found ways to work around it. Today, Wagner has an associate’s degree. She enjoyed taking college courses and working on her strengths.