From Parenting New Mexico February 2000
ARTICLE FOUR OF FOUR ARTICLES ON
by Gayle Zieman, Ph.D.
The Math and
In this last article on Learning Disabilities (LD) we focus
on an impairment, which unlike Dyslexia and associated spelling
and written expression disorders, is not rooted in language difficulties.
Nonverbal Learning Disabilities are the least recognized learning
problems in the classroom, often being totally missed. Individuals
with a Nonverbal Learning Disability (NLD) are frequently good
readers, and their NLD often becomes obvious only after the first
few grades in school.
A Nonverbal Learning Disability affects five to ten percent
of all individuals who have a specific learning problem, and,
unlike reading and spelling problems, affects girls and boys
in approximately equal numbers and is much less likely to run
in families. Often referred to as the "right hemisphere
disability," NLD primarily stems from neurological deficits
on the right side of the brain as opposed to Dyslexia which is
mostly a left hemisphere problem. Individuals with NLD have visual
spatial weaknesses and usually struggle with math, handwriting,
and sometimes social skills.
A child with NLD has skill weaknesses in all or most of the
following basic areas: fine motor coordination (especially in
the early grades), visual perception (accurately "seeing"
and telling apart complex shapes like letters), visual-motor
integration (being able to draw or write what they see), visual
memory (being able to remember visual patterns like a series
of letters), and visual-spatial organization (drawing a map or
arranging placement of things on a page).
These are the young children who do not color or draw much,
are not particularly interested in puzzles, and avoid toys that
involve construction (Legos and blocks, for example). They may
or may not have gross motor delays which result in general clumsiness
and slowness to grasp tasks such as riding a bicycle. As late
preschoolers and kindergarten children, the child showing NLD
symptoms usually can learn to spell their name out loud much
easier than they can write it. The NLD kid would much rather
talk about something than do a cut and paste activity.
As older children and adults, NLD is manifest in a variety
of weaknesses which include poor performance in art and often
with visual tasks in physical education like shooting baskets
and hitting a ball. Difficulties are also seen with many daily
spatial tasks such as using tools (can't remember which way to
turn a screwdriver, for example), organizing visual tasks (like
loading the dishwasher), trouble estimating amounts of things
(how far a mile is, how much is in a tablespoon), and struggling
to read maps. Spatially, many NLD individuals have poor orientation
skills. They often get lost in the school building and can't
remember which direction is north or even which way is right
or left. Imagine the kid in driver's ed who held the backs of
both hands in front of his face, extended both thumbs out, and
exclaimed, "The one that makes an L shape, that's left!"
Science and social studies books can also be quite a problem
for the NLD sufferer - reading the text is no sweat, but those
charts and graphs can be pretty confusing. For many with NLD,
a thousand words is worth a lot more than two bar charts and
a line graph.
Language, vocabulary, and auditory processing are the strongholds
for someone with NLD. Learning to speak and read is usual no
problem and, often these are areas of special proficiency. Having
good language and auditory memory skills, NLD sufferers are often
early readers and good spellers, at least until the middle of
third grade when the spelling list begins to contain non-phonetic
words (like "enough" and "Illinois") which
have to be learned by visual memory. Rote, verbatim memory is
often an area of mastery; like for the child who told me how
to get to his class from the school office, "go five doors
down the blue hall, then three doors in the green hall, and read
'Welcome' on the door." His teacher reported that when finding
his way around he could be heard saying directions to himself.
Poor, slow, and labored handwriting is a very common feature
of NLD. Torment in learning to write the letters they so easily
learned to say can be the first clear NLD sign. Difficulty with
handwriting, Dysgraphia, can be caused by several difficulties:
weak fine motor skills (often noted by trouble holding a pencil),
poor visual perception (can't see the difference between h and
k), deficits in integration between visual perception and motor
output (trouble drawing), or trouble associating shapes (letters)
with sounds. The dysgraphic child often confuses letters and
reverses similarly-shaped letters (often incorrectly called "Dyslexia"
which really means reading disorder) beyond first grade when
most children can accurately write all of the letters. Other
common early symptoms are great trouble spacing words on a page
(the words often run together), difficulty writing on a line,
forgetting margins, and needing to write in large letters. I
recently assessed a third grade boy with these problems who proudly
announced that he now had it all figured out: "You put a
pinky finger (space) between words, a pointer finger after periods,
and two fingers on each side of the page." I cheered him
on, but told his parents that before the term papers of middle
school arrive they should teach him to use a computer word processor.
Agony with learning mathematics, Dyscalculia, is a common
NLD feature. Math is a significantly "right brain"
activity involving visual spatial abilities. Conceptualizing
math problems involves visualizing the operations. Addition,
for example, is a mental operation of "seeing" sets
of things being put together. Research has shown that NLD individuals
can understand the language and verbal reasoning aspects of a
math problem fine, but can't "visualize" efficiently
the relationships between the parts of the problem to actually
perform the arithmetic operations. Research has also pointed
out that visual perceptual skills have a stronger relationship
to math ability than does a person's general IQ.
There is some evidence that NLD children have a greater risk
than most children, and possibly even children with other forms
of learning disabilities, for developing emotional and social
adjustment problems. Some preliminary research indicates that
NLD sufferers often have fewer friends, are overly dependent
on their parents, and are prone to mood problems such as depression.
One theory proposes that due to visual perception weaknesses
individuals with NLD have trouble noticing and interpreting nonverbal
social communication such as facial expressions and subtle body
gestures. Data regarding NLD and social/emotional adjustment
are sparse and certainly more research is needed.
For children with Dysgraphia, extra practice in handwriting
and positioning written material on the page is the single most
effective direct help. Often practicing in a large format, such
as on dry erase board or in a cookie sheet filled with sand can
be especially productive. Allowing extra time to complete written
assignments and providing page guides such as clearly marked
margins can be helpful. Many primary grade students with Dysgraphia
also do better with the introduction of cursive writing. Since
cursive writing involves a flow between the letters and unlike
printing does not have letters which are exact mirror images
of each other (like b and d), many NLD children find it much
easier to grasp. Learning to use a computer word processor can
also be a major remedial aid for many.
Training better performance in mathematics is not as straightforward.
The primary strategy is to make mathematical operations more
concrete and tangible. The hands-on manipulation of objects illustrating
math concepts is preferred. Special colored sticks called Cuisenaire
Rods are often helpful in teaching the basic operations of addition,
subtraction, and multiplication. Also, early use of a calculator
is a strong benefit for some. Given the general verbal strength
of most NLD individuals, teaching them how to talk their way
through the steps of math problems and learning step wise "recipes"
for solving problems are other effective strategies.
It is unclear how much social adjustment and emotional functioning
can be helped by direct training. More research is needed in
In general, NLD individuals will require more time to complete
work involving handwriting, artwork, spatial organization, and
mathematics. They often need additional training in working with
graphs and charts, and may need special instruction in map reading
and spatial orientation, such as finding their way around the
school building. As with all learning disabilities, the best
approaches are quite individualized and are based on the unique
pattern of assessed strengths and weaknesses observed at each
Helping Children Overcome Learning Disabilities,
Third Edition by Jerome Rosner, 1993
Learning Disabilities: A to Z,
by Corinne Smith and Lisa Strick, 1999
International Dyslexia Association (has a Southwest Branch
and annual Albuquerque conference), Baltimore, MD 21286,
Learning Disabilities Association of America, Pittsburgh,
PA 15234, 412/341-1515, www.best.com/~ldanatl
National Center for Learning Disabilities, New York, NY,
Parents of Gifted Learning Disabled Children, Silver Springs,
MD, 301/986-1422, www.geocities.com/athens/1105/gtld.html
Recordings for the Blind and Dyslexic, Princeton, NJ,
Dr. Zieman is an Albuquerque psychologist who specializes
in the evaluation of child, adolescent, and family problems.
He frequently assesses children and adults with Learning Disabilities,
behavior problems, ADD/ADHD, and divorce related issues.
Learning Disability Articles
Part 1 | Part 2
| Part 3
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