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Could Your ADHD Child Have a Nonverbal Learning Disorder?

It's so easy to confuse attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) with a different learning disorder, especially when you consider how similar their symptoms are. Take nonverbal learning disorder, for instance.  This fairly common disability goes easily undiagnosed because its most obvious symptoms resemble the non-stop talking often found in children with ADHD.

So what's the difference between a child with nonverbal learning disorder (NLD) and a child with ADHD? The first thing you should know is that children with NLD are actually very verbal people – they have mature vocabulary, talk "like adults," have excellent reading ability, and demonstrate good rote memory skills.  However, they are clearly deficit in the nonverbal arena.  As a preschooler, your child might have trouble getting along with other kids, adapting to new situations, and troublesome but minor fine motor problems.  For instance, your child might have incomprehensible handwriting.

During elementary school, your child might do fairly well in terms of academics, except for when a subtle symptom of NLD interferes with socialization or non-academic areas.  As your child enters middle school or high school, things start to deteriorate as he is faced with more responsibilities.  Teachers find him rude and he gets into fights with classmates because he cannot understand nonverbal cues like facial expressions or body language.  Your child has difficulties completing homework, reading an assigned chapter, or writing an essay.  Yet your child maintains his articulate speech and precocious language.

Children who have NLD are able to make up for the limitations of their disorder.  It only starts to get worse once they hit puberty, when they start to suffer from anxiety or alienation. When they become adults, they experience problems setting priorities or picking up on social cues, or undergo mood disorders, which make it difficult for them to maintain relationships or jobs.

Diagnosing NLD involves a series of speech and language tests, neuropsychological tests, and other evaluation procedures. Since the most obvious symptom of NLD is advanced language skills, doctors usually administer the Brown ADD Scales and the Wechsler Intelligence Scale to distinguish NLD from ADHD.  Children with NLD usually have 20 verbal IQ points more than their performance IQ scores.

Just like with ADHD, children with NLD will flourish if they receive holistic treatment.  Some therapies that benefit NLD sufferers include:

  • Social skills groups, which teach children how to meet strangers, greet friends, recognize when they are being teased, etc.
  • Occupational therapy, an approach that improves fine motor skills and balance.
  • Sensory integration therapy.  Some children with NLD tend to be hypersensitive to stimuli or have difficulties processing multi-sensory stimuli.  This can make them feel agitated when confronted by distractions and other sensory stimuli.  Sensory integration therapy can help them overcome these setbacks and reduce the anxiety caused by encountering strange sensory information.