New Evidence that NVLD is not the same as Aspergers: Brain Scans

A Michigan State University researcher has discovered the first anatomical evidence that the brains of children with a nonverbal learning disability – long considered a “pseudo” diagnosis – may develop differently than the brains of other children.

The finding, published in Child Neuropsychology, could ultimately help educators and clinicians better distinguish between – and treat – children with a nonverbal learning disability, or NVLD, and those with Asperger’s, or high functioning autism, which is often confused with NVLD.

“Children with nonverbal learning disabilities and Asperger’s can look very similar, but they can have very different reasons for why they behave the way they do,” said Jodene Fine, assistant professor of school psychology in MSU’s College of Education. —Shedding new light on learning disorders

I also recently wrote about an IQ test in this post:

I just took an online IQ test.  Shortly in, I knew I was in trouble.  Normally, I score quite well on these things: 140s, gifted range, which I know to be correct because my teacher called me gifted, and had me put in a gifted school in 3rd grade.

But this thing is all frickin’ logic, so I only got 114 on the European measure (it was something like 100 on the US scale; I didn’t save the results).

Just like I also didn’t do so well, about 20 years ago, on a test which was heavily math, even though I still scored highly on it (130).  A more balanced test a year later gave me high results (150).

From what I can gather, this test appears to be a kind of performance IQ evaluation, since it mostly involves completing pictures, and people with NVLD have a discrepancy of at least 10 points between verbal and performance IQ.

For those who don’t know, Verbal IQ is basic arithmetic, vocabulary, etc. while performance is picture completion, block arrangement into shapes, etc. In other words, performance tests non-verbal capabilities. —Wrongplanet poster


People with NVLD:

Rourke (1995a) has also identified deficits in executive functioning as among the primary impairments in NVLD (Strang & Rourke, 1983).

Executive functions include such higher level abilities as abstract reasoning, logical analysis, hypothesis testing, and cognitive flexibility, or the ability to “shift gears” mentally.

The ability to focus, shift, and distribute attention, organize information into memory to aid learning and remembering, and otherwise regulate thought processes are also examples of executive functions.

Although similar etiologies have been proposed to explain both nonverbal learning disability and executive dysfunction (i.e., impairments of subcortical white matter), poor performance on measures of executive functioning are not always found in children with NVLD.

There is no clear data to indicate how frequently executive functioning deficits occur in the NVLD population. It is the author’s experience that such deficits are common in more severe cases of NVLD and quite rare in more subtle cases. —The Syndrome of Nonverbal Learning Disabilities: Clinical Description and Applied Aspects by Michael A. Roman

Trouble “shifting gears mentally”: oh, definitely. I always hated that at work, when the phone rang while I was in the middle of a task. Even as a housewife, it still happens, and I hate that, too. My mom also noted this about me when I was a kid.

NLD children find it difficult to learn from past experience, deal with novel situations, internalize feedback, and understand cause and effect relationships; all of which requires information processing and generalization skills.

Thus it would seem logical for children with NLD to experience more difficulties with analogical problem solving tasks that require processing and transfer of knowledge from one situation or context to another. –Carrie Ann Kimpton Heald, Social emotional differences of students who have a NVLD or dysphasia

I am very detail-oriented. I am very smart in certain areas, and while I did do better than my peers in regular math and science classes, there is a huge discrepancy between what I could do in math and science, and what I could do in language-based classes (English, spelling, writing, literature). (Just look at the 30-point difference between my logic IQ and my usual IQ.)

I never fit in with the “regular” kids or with the “smart” kids, because the other kids had all their subjects in the same level (regular, honors or advanced), while I was split (regular for math and science, advanced for English). I knew this because I heard them talk about and saw which classes they were in.

So it’s not that I struggled when put into a class which matched my abilities; it’s that there was such a huge discrepancy between my abilities for each subject. You’ll note that in between regular and advanced, we had an honors level.

I tried honors for each subject; in math and science, I did poorly in middle and high school, so got bumped down to regular. In English, I tried honors, but found it too easy.

Maybe, one day, I’ll have thousands of $$$$$$ to finally get this diagnosed. But for now, this is all I can afford…..

For me, it’s awesome to know there’s a legitimate cause of the problems I had in school, socially and in other situations throughout my life.

It’s puzzling why your teachers call you smart but you struggle with things the “average” kids do easily.

Knowing it’s a learning disorder, and that even smart kids can have one, means you’re not a freak or weird after all, and that you don’t deserve those baffling criticisms people would make of you that you knew weren’t true, but couldn’t figure out why they said that about you.

Before you think I got teased because I was smart, or that it’s common for gifted kids to be seen as “weird,” I got teased BY THE SMART KIDS. I got called “weird” AT THE GIFTED SCHOOL.

Many children and teens with an NLD had medical problems during their mother’s pregnancy or birth. Some of the common pregnancy and birth difficulties are:

  • very long labor at birth
  • having the umbilical cord wrapped around the neck
  • premature birth or low birth weight
  • serious infections as a young infant —NVLD

Hmmmm….My son had the first two….


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  1. “NVLD” is often just a form of autism, PDD, ASD, but with different etiology. If child has nonverbal communication disability, it can’t have only learning disorder. If it has abnormal pattern of interests (also in social area), emotions and thoughts it just has other type of autism. It is not just communication deficit, it is autism.

    1. Thank you for your comment. It sounds like we’re looking at a difference in how the terms are used in the US vs. Poland. But I do identify with various elements of NVLD. 🙂

  2. I think that in Poland people with something which is named “nonverbal learning disorder” in America would be often diagnosed with Asperger’s. I think that someone with NVLD diagnosis not always will have higher level of functioning than someone with “classical” Asperger’s or other high-functioning ASD. I read that NLD is a “silent, serious and complex developmental disability”. Autism was also called “serious and complex developmental disability” – I wrote this phrase in Google and there were links about NLD and autism. NLD appears to be something MUCH worse than dyslexia. I would classify dyslexia as “specific developmental disorder” and “NLD” as “complex developmental disorder”. Autism and intellectual disability are other examples of “complex developmental disorder”. It looks that most people with NLD diagnosis have serious social and (or) emotional problems. So it is definately something worse than a “specific disorder of scholastic skills”. “NLD” almost certainly has different etiology than “classical” form of Asperger’s. I think that “NLD” has to be classified in the same group of developmental disorders as “classic” Asperger’s. “NLD” should not be classified as just “learning” problem. It is too complex and destructive.

  3. Yes, it certainly is not limited to academics, like other learning disabilities. Since I have not been in school for almost 20 years, the academic part no longer matters. But I still struggle with various social issues, along with driving.

  4. I had low birth weight and some health problems as a newborn (I probably(?) spend first month after birth in hospital). My mother was ill before my birth. I was born on time (according to my health certificate) and had 10 points in Apgar scale. I had birth weight 2150 g and body length 53 cm (using other than suggested by WHO method of measuring body length, in fact it should be few centimeters lower). I was first child, conceived before marriage, parents were from quite small villages, they had both quite low birth weight (2800 g). My younger siblings had larger birth weight than me (brother 3600 g, sister 2650 g), they also were born on time and they also had 10 points in Apgar scale.

    I think that typical “autism spectrum disorder” does not fit me. I have not many problematic symptoms of ASD, such as lack of empathy, very poor central coherence, severe sensory issues, inability to recognise people nad faces. About two weeks ago I got diagnosis of schizotypal disorder (as co-occuring with Asperger’s). A priest said that it is very possible that I would never be able to be married. I am “childish”, “irresponsible”, “unbalanced”. I think that “nonverbal learning disability syndrome” has to be classified in one category of neurodevelopmental disorders with “autism spectrum disorder”, but not in the same category as “specific”, “not complex” disorders such as dyscalculia and dyslexia. For me “NLD” and ASD are different (and probably not related) sorts of the same phenomenon.

  5. NLD and ASD certainly have many social aspects in common. I identify more with NLD than ASD, yet I also have some mental and visual “stims” and other traits which seem more in line with ASD. From what I understand, even the researchers don’t quite understand it all yet. 😛

    As for not getting married–Well, you never know. A guy in college once said I’d be an old maid, yet I got married before he did. 🙂

  6. I have looked into the symptoms of both aspergers (autism) and nvld, i discovered autism first with aspergers being the closest match to me due to toe walking, and stims which I have watched others do. I would describe myself as aspergers but then when I look at the nvld it matches my personality even more perfectly. The two look very similar. My visual memory is quite active, I can’t always see in perfect detail but I rely heavily on my visual memory of my past experiences and I remember where I or people placed things. I get snap shots of my past along with emotion. If something grabs my attention visually I can retain the information, just as well as my auditory, the main problem for me is things get fragmented depending on my focus and attention.

  7. Autism is a continuum, symptoms of aspergers seem to fit my description and symptoms of nvld also fit me but don’t seem to share the same symptoms as aspergers

    1. Thank you for your comment. I have read that both Asperger’s and NVLD can be in the same person. 🙂

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