Non-Verbal Learning Disabilities And Their Effect On Social Skills

This article doesn't contain any advice. Instead it's a quick overview of a social skills-related condition that you may not have been aware of.

Many people have heard of Asperger's Syndrome as a developmental difference that can lead to problems in social skills. A somewhat more obscure issue is the Non-Verbal Learning Disability, or Non-Verbal Learning Disorder. People with it have similar problems as those with Asperger's Syndrome. It's a fairly new idea in the area of learning and psychology, and I'll briefly summarize it here.

Learning Disabilities

First I'll explain what a learning disability is. The term is used differently depending on what country you're in. I'm using the North American meaning. I know in the UK 'learning disability' is used to refer to what in North America would be called an intellectual disability or mental retardation.

For someone to be diagnosed with learning disability they have to have at least average intelligence, but show a particular weakness in one or more aspects of their ability to learn. It's an inborn difference in brain wiring. There are lots of different types of learning disabilities. I'll just give some quick examples to roughly get the idea across. One child may be fine doing most tasks, but can't properly absorb information that he reads. Another kid may have no problem reading, but something goes awry in her retention of information if it's spoken to her out loud. Another student may have no problem taking information in, but can't express himself properly through his writing. As a final example, someone else's learning disability may lead to higher-level problems with planning and organization.

Learning disabilities mainly lead to academic problems. However, the underlying brain difference that leads to, say, trouble with doing math, can cause other issues, such as difficulty recognizing social cues. Professionals who work with children with learning disabilities note that they often have trouble in social situations and are less accepted by their peers on average. Their learning disability can also cause them social problems in a more indirect way, by leading to them being picked on for being in a Special Ed class or whatnot.

Non-Verbal Learning Disabilities

People with a non-verbal learning disability may have even more problems with socializing. Many learning disabilities affect skills in the verbal domain; reading, writing, speaking, articulating your thoughts, vocabulary, etc. Most school work draws on these abilities. People with a non-verbal learning disability often have very developed verbal skills.

Their weakness is in the non-verbal area. They have a hard time grasping math or spatial awareness-related tasks like reading a map or a graph, judging how far away something is, or navigating their way through a city. They're often physically uncoordinated. Most importantly, they have trouble with social situations, particularly with reading and using non-verbal communication. They're great talkers, and tend to over rely on that. They can chat someone's ear off, but may be weak in other aspects of communicating.

Non-Verbal Learning Disabilities and Asperger's Syndrome

People with these conditions present very similarly to each other. Some researchers debate whether there's even a difference real between the two. Maybe they're both describing the same underlying problem, but are just using two different frameworks to do it. Personally I've seen Venn diagrams that showed that while Asperger's Syndrome and Non-Verbal Learning Disabilities overlap in most of their symptoms, there are some differences between the two. The funny thing is I've seen various sources claim different things are the unique aspects of each condition.

Helping people with Non-Verbal Learning Disabilities learn social skills

Non-Verbal Learning Disabilities are mainly diagnosed in children. Like kids with 'regular' learning disabilities who are struggling socially, they may be given remedial social skills training. This is often done in a group setting, but may be done one-on-one with a counselor, or in pairs with another client.

This article on approaches that may work for adults with Asperger's Syndrome may be relevant:

Ways People With Asperger Syndrome Can Improve Their Social Success