The news is out. With an incidence rate of 1 per 150, more than half a million Americans have autistic disorders. Part of the reason is that more and more people on the fringes of autism are being diagnosed.
One of the conditions on the fringes is so new, it is not yet listed in the DSM, the Diagnostic Statistical Manual that is the Bible of Mental Health professionals. In fact, not everyone agrees whether it is an autistic disorder or a type of learning disability. But while most learning disabilities affect the ability to read, children with nonverbal learning disability learn to read early, often independently. They use language to compensate for weaknesses in other areas of communication that we take for granted, like facial expressions, gestures, and body language. In addition to difficulties with interpersonal communication and social interaction, they often have problems with motor clumsiness, organizational and executive abilities, and visual/spatial tasks.
Like other autistic spectrum disorders, NLD is a neurologically-based developmental disorder affecting how the brain processes information. However, while people with autism have impaired communication and emotional detachment, those with NLD generally seek friendship and have above average verbal skills. The also have average to superior intelligence and language ability, attention to detail, and rote memory, but have problems with social interaction, motor clumsiness, organizational and executive abilities, and visual/spatial tasks. They may be perceived as socially inept, clumsy, spacey, lazy, underachieving, incompetent, or lacking emotional insight. Taken together, these problems cause significant difficulty with interpersonal relationships as well as school or job performance. When they try to explain their differences to colleagues and bosses, they're berated for making excuses. Coworkers do not understand why people who are smart and educated have problems with tasks such as managing a classroom or assisting customers. Teachers and parents often cry out in frustration, "If you're so smart, why can't you..." or "I shouldn't have to tell you!" But you do have to tell them, because people with nonverbal learning disability often don't learn by observation, and have trouble learning and doing the simple, everyday things most people take for granted.
People with NLD often have problems with fine and gross motor skills, coordination and balance, so children are late learning to dress and eat with utensils. They're clumsy and awkward. In school, they have problems with writing, arts and crafts, and sports. As adults, they are slower and clumsier at motor tasks and may have trouble with things like folding clothes neatly or wrapping presents.
They have problems with processing visual information, so they may not be able to pick out an object in a crowded background such as a saltshaker on the dinner table or a stapler on a messy desk. Because they're spatially challenged, they have trouble keeping track of belongings or time. They get lost easily and may have trouble finding their way from one class to the next, so they're often late. Although their eyes work fine, their brain doesn't integrate the information they see, and they have difficulty learning concepts that are not presented in words.
Frequent social blunders stem from the inability to discern and/or process perceptual and visual cues in communication. Difficulty interpreting gestures, deciphering postural clues, and "reading" facial expressions or tone of voice cause frequent misunderstandings, since 65% of interpersonal communication is nonverbal. For example, they often have problems knowing when and how to enter conversations or noting when others wish to change the subject. They may not realize when they're irritating or annoying. They may not acknowledge colleagues, customers or classmates because they have trouble remembering their faces - a problem shared to some degree by 1in 50 people.
Many NLDers have problems with synthesizing information. They may have difficulty with abstract concepts, and may not grasp a new idea until it is put into words. Because their brain takes longer to process nonverbal information, they require more time to complete tasks and may have trouble transitioning from one activity to the next. They may take longer than average to accomplish tasks or answer questions on a test, because their mind works a little slower.
They also have problems with executive skills, the mental processes that allow us to monitor behavior and make decisions. This affects their ability to plan, prioritize, and organize, or to grasp a problem and come up with feasible solutions - making it difficult to plan and manage projects, initiate tasks, organize work, and follow multi-step instructions.
Because our society values social competence and physical gracefulness above knowledge or intelligence, these deficits often cause NLD individuals significant, life-long challenges in relationships, work, and recreational pursuits. They often feel misunderstood and have problems fitting in, like a square peg in a round hole. Lifelong failures and misunderstandings may lead to an extreme lack of confidence and self esteem, a pervasive sense of underachievement, of doing one's best but always falling short of others' expectations. Because of this, they often feel overwhelmed with life, misunderstood, and unable to fit in to society.
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