Nonverbal learning disorder: happy children communicating in corridor during break
Photo by Katerina Holmes

Shortly after that unfortunate incident between Chris Rock and Will Smith, the many conversations that followed, Chris Rocks’s diagnosis of nonverbal learning disorder became a major part of these conversations.

If you have never heard about nonverbal learning disorder (NVLD), you might be wondering what it is and how it relates to your child?

Here is what you should know about nonverbal learning disorder.

What is Nonverbal Learning Disorder?

Nonverbal learning disorder (NVLD) is a learning disability that affects nonverbal skills such as motor, visual-spatial and social-communication skills. Children with nonverbal learning disorder usually do not have trouble with language-based learning and are good at rote learning. Rote learning is learning by memorization.

However, they have challenges with the nonverbal skills that we all need to succeed daily. NVLD is sometimes referred to as right hemisphere deficit because the right side of the brain responsible for these processes is thought to be damaged (Casey, 2012).

Motor Skills

When children have NVLD, they have difficulty coordinating their motor activities. There is a noticeable clumsiness in the child’s movements with a marked difference in the motor activities between the dominant and non-dominant side of the body, with more difficulties noticed on the left side of the body.[1]

The child will have multiple challenges learning motor activities such as riding a bicycle and walking. Finding balance will also pose a challenge for the child. During the toddler phase, there are likely more falls as the child tries to master gross motor activities.[2]

Nonverbal learning disorder: man standing beside his wife teaching their child how to ride bicycle
Photo by Agung Pandit Wiguna

Visual-Spatial Skills

Children with nonverbal learning disorder have challenges with visual-spatial processing. Visual-spatial processing is the ability to understand the position of objects in space and the distance between these objects. We use visual-spatial skills for orientation and navigating the world around us through processing information from our environments and using them to develop patterns.

Children with NVLD cannot form visual-spatial images. They cannot integrate the visual-spatial information they have learnt with new information. They, however, rely on memory by verbally labelling everything in the environment as visual images are not present.[3]

Social Communication Skills

An estimated 65% of all communication is nonverbal.  However, children with nonverbal learning disorder have trouble understanding nonverbal communication cues such as body language, facial expression and tone or pitch of voice. These difficulties make it hard for the child to navigate social situations and can make the child appear rude or socially awkward. Additionally, children with NVLD think in concrete terms and will have difficulties understanding abstract ideas, reading or understanding a person’s true intentions or deceit.[4]

Impact of Nonverbal Learning Disorder

Based on the above example, children with NVLD will have challenges adapting to new situations, problem-solving and understanding complex aspects of the nonverbal environment. These challenges become more evident as children grow older, typically around 10 – 14 years old, and need to depend less on rote learning and memorization. During this phase of their development, children with NVLD begin to struggle academically because learning at this phase requires problem-solving skills, higher-order reasoning and mathematical skills impaired by their nonverbal learning disorder.

Diagnosis of Nonverbal Learning Disorder

Although categorised as a learning disability, there is no clinical consensus for diagnosing NVLD and it is not included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM-5).

As NVLD is not a language disorder like dyslexia, it is perceived to be less debilitating to the individual’s daily functions. Additionally, children with NVLD find many compensation tactics like an overreliance on their verbal skills and memory to function in their daily lives.

As a result, NVLD is overlooked or misdiagnosed, and many of its symptoms are often grouped in a cluster for ADHD or Autism Spectrum Disorder (Casey, 2012). Consequently, many children pass their childhood without a proper diagnosis, and some get a diagnosis as adults.

In the case of Chris Rock, he was diagnosed with NVLD in 2020 at 55 years old. At the suggestion of a friend, Chris Rock sought help as he knew that there was “always something off”. For Chris Rock, a diagnosis of NVLD made sense and gave him the missing piece of the puzzle because he had a hard time with nonverbal cues which affected his relationships.

Prevalence of Nonverbal Learning Disorder

Research shows that the prevalence rate for NVLD in America is between 3% to 4% or 2.2 to 2.9 million children younger than 18 years old. That means, 1 in 25 children may have nonverbal learning disorder. Additionally, for those children who met the criteria for NVLD, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and anxiety were the most common diagnoses. Data also shows that NVLD affects girls and boys equally.

What are the Signs of Nonverbal Learning Disorder?

Parents who may be concerned about their children’s development if something seems off or amiss should pay close attention to signs of nonverbal learning disorder. These may include:

  1. Strong verbal abilities at a young age
  2. A propensity to talk oneself through tasks or a need to verbalise things to understand them
  3. Lack of balance, always falling over or seems clumsy
  4. The inability to read and understand social situations
  5. Speaking inappropriate things at inappropriate times
  6. Needing to be told everything, even things that they should “get” or know
  7. Lack of movement coordination
  8. An unawareness of personal space
  9. Lack of social judgement
  10. Challenges with comprehension and mathematical problem solving


How to Get Help?

If your child is displaying some of the signs above and you have concerns, it is best to speak to your child’s paediatrician who can refer you to a specialist.


Casey, J. E. (2012). A Model to Guide the Conceptualization, Assessment, and Diagnosis of Nonverbal Learning Disorder. Canadian Journal of School Psychology, 27(1), 35-57. doi:10.1177/0829573512436966





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