Is Nonverbal Learning Disorder on the Autism Spectrum?

Is nonverbal learning disorder on the autism spectrum? Explained.

A person with nonverbal learning disorder has no difficulty in understanding individual words that are spoken or written down, but they may not recognize nonverbal elements of speech. Is nonverbal learning disorder on the autism spectrum? No since the two conditions are different, but share common symptoms.

For example, they may miss sarcasm used in speech, fail to recognize or attribute meaning to particular facial expressions, and may struggle to infer meaning by ‘reading between the lines' in speech or in stories. It is often confused with or mistaken for an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), though there are distinct differences between the two conditions.

What is nonverbal learning disorder?

A nonverbal learning disorder is a neurological condition that affects a person's ability to think in abstract terms, and can have a significant impact on their social skills and, therefore, on their relationships and friendships. Social interactions such as making small talk with a stranger, or having normal conversations with friends, colleagues or loved ones can be very frustrating, embarrassing and confusing for a person with nonverbal learning disorder.

The negative symptoms of nonverbal learning disorder include:

  • Difficulty in understanding what they are reading (in children, struggles with reading comprehension and word problems in maths are noticeable)
  • Poor reasoning skills
  • Poor handwriting, fine motor skills, and coordination
  • Taking everything literally
  • Difficulty in understanding or recognizing nonverbal communication (e.g. body language, tone of voice, facial expression)
  • Failure to take into account the context of information to infer greater meaning
  • Poor social skills, few friends
  • Anxiety, withdrawal, depression and poor self-esteem
  • Fear of or difficulty coping with change

By not understanding things such as facial expressions or detecting the difference between a natural lull or pause in conversation and the end of a discussion, people with nonverbal learning disabilities can find themselves socially isolated – they find turn-taking in conversation and responding to the other person's comments or ideas very difficult. This, in turn, can produce feelings of depression and anxiety and lead to social withdrawal.

However, there are plenty of positive attributes common to people with nonverbal learning disorder.

Common attributes include:

  • Fantastic memory (especially verbal memory)
  • Excellent vocabulary and speech
  • Good ability to interpret auditory information (such as when following instructions)
  • Spelling and finding information is typically very good.

Some of the difficulties that are faced are common to Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) as well, which is why it is important to gain accurate diagnosis through careful assessment.

What is Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)?

Someone with Autism Spectrum Disorder will suffer to a greater or lesser degree in each of the ‘Triad of impairments.'

ASD triad of impairments include:

  • Difficulties with social interaction (interacting with others in socially acceptable ways – they may struggle with appropriate eye contact, the concept of ‘personal space', failing to realise or understand how the other person's feelings or emotions may affect what they say, and showing little interest in what the other person has to say).
  • Difficulties with social communication (interpreting facial expressions, tone of voice, body language and figures of speech, and having difficulty processing complex, multi-step instructions).
  • Difficulties with social imagination (predicting events, understanding events from another person's perspective, engaging in imaginative play, struggling with change, understanding the concept of danger).

All people on the autistic spectrum will struggle with some aspects of all three of these impairments to some degree – it is a cornerstone of their diagnosis.

Is nonverbal learning disorder on the autistic spectrum?

As you can see from the Triad of Impairments above, the two conditions do overlap in some respects, principally in the area of difficulties in social communication. However, people with nonverbal learning disorder do not fit the criteria laid down in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) for Autism Spectrum Disorder (DSM).

Nevertheless, the areas of weakness in people with nonverbal learning disabilities overlap those of people with Autism Spectrum Disorder and both diagnoses require careful consideration to ensure that the correct one is ultimately given. Some people do have co-morbid Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and nonverbal learning disorder.

Ongoing research into the extent to which these two conditions overlap may reveal greater differences, or may indeed lead to a broadening of the definition of Autism Spectrum Disorder to include nonverbal learning disorder, but at present, the two are considered separate conditions.

Last Reviewed:
August 31, 2017
Last Updated:
October 26, 2017
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