Nonverbal Learning Disorder versus Autism Spectrum Disorder: What Is The Difference?

I can't tell you how happy I am to have found this site. I have a 9 year old son with ASD. He was diagnosed at 6 years old with a non verbal learning disorder, and attends a school for children with ADHD and/or autism. As his parent, I feel overwhelmed, scared, frustrated, and completely alone. I am hoping to find other parents who understand the issues we face daily, and who can share thoughts and ideas. I'm really hoping this site might be the life ring that keeps me from drowning!


Nonverbal learning disorder (NLD) is a learning disorder that has many traits commonly associated with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Like those with ASD, kids with NLD usually start to talk around 2 years of age (the age at which speech normally develops).
Youngsters with NLD are very verbal, and may not have academic problems until they get into the upper grades in school. Often their biggest problem is with social skills. NLD is very much like ASD level 1 (high-functioning autism). 
It may be that the diagnoses of ASD and NLD simply provide different perspectives on a heterogeneous, yet overlapping, group of individuals sharing at least some common aspects. ASD and NLD are generally thought to describe pretty much the same kind of disorder, but to differ in severity—with ASD describing more severe symptoms.

Signs of NLD—

• Anxiety, depression, low self-esteem
• Attention to detail, but misses the big picture
• Concrete thinking; taking things very literally
• Difficulty with math, especially word problems
• Excellent memory skills
• Fear of new situations
• Great vocabulary and verbal expression
• May be very naïve and lack common sense
• May withdraw, becoming agoraphobic (abnormal fear of open spaces)
• Messy and laborious handwriting
• Physically awkward; poor coordination
• Poor abstract reasoning
• Poor social skills; difficulty making and keeping friends
• Trouble adjusting to changes
• Trouble understanding reading
• Trouble with nonverbal communication, like body language, facial expression and tone of voice

Parenting tips for youngsters with NLD—

• Be logical, organized, clear, concise and concrete. Avoid jargon, double meanings, sarcasm, nicknames, and teasing.

• Be very specific about cause and effect relationships.

• Get your son into the therapies he needs, such as: occupational and physical therapy, psychological, or speech and language (to address social issues).

• Have your son use the computer at school and at home for schoolwork.

• Help your son learn coping skills for dealing with anxiety and sensory difficulties.

• Help your son learn organizational and time management skills.

• Help him out in group activities.

• Keep the environment predictable and familiar.

• Learn about social competence and how to teach it.

• Make use of your son's verbal skills to help with social interactions and non-verbal experiences. For example, giving a verbal explanation of visual material.

• Pay attention to sensory input from the environment, like noise, temperature, smells, many people around, etc.

• Prepare your son for changes, giving logical explanations.

• Provide structure and routine.

• State your expectations clearly.

• Teach him about non-verbal communication (facial expressions, gestures, etc.). Help him learn how to tell from others’ reactions whether they are communicating well.

• Work with his school to modify homework assignments, testing (time and content), grading, art and physical education.

• Bullying is unacceptable. Your son's school must make every effort to prevent it. If talking to your son's teachers and principal does not put an end to the victimization, ask his doctor to write a letter to the school, and pursue the issue up to higher channels in the school district if necessary.

• Encourage your son to develop interests that will build self-esteem and help him relate to other youngsters. For example, if he is interested in Pokémon, pursuing this interest may open social doors for them with schoolmates.

• Reassure your son that you value him for who he is. It's a little tricky to help your son  improve social skills, and at the same time nurture his confidence to hold on to his unique individuality.

• See if you can find a small-group social skills training program in your school system, medical system, or community. This kind of program will probably not be available in smaller communities.

• Steer your son toward a playmate he has something in common with and set up a play date. This is a way to get some social skills experience in a small, controlled, less-threatening way.

• Talk to your son in private after you have gone with him to a group activity. You can discuss with him how he could improve the way he interacts with other youngsters. For example, you might point out that other youngsters don't feel comfortable when your son stands so close to them. Help him practice the social skills you explain to him through role-playing.

• These youngsters need as few handicaps as possible, so make sure your son is getting the counseling, therapies, and/or medication he needs to treat any other problems or medical conditions he might have.

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