What is the Difference Between a Non-Verbal Learning Disorder and Autism Spectrum Disorder

Nonverbal Learning Disorder (NVLD) was first identified in the late 1960’s. Considering that dyslexia has been in the literature since the late 1800’s and Autism (now known as Autism Spectrum Disorder or ASD) in the early 1900’s, NVLD is in a relatively early period of research. That said, the field of research has made significant gains in developing an understanding of NVLD. Currently, the most important work is focused on demonstrating that, although there is what appears to be some overlap in symptoms of NVLD and ASD, NVLD is a distinct and specific learning disability.
NVLD is a spectrum of disorders characterized by variations in severity and symptomology. A pervasive and overlapping challenge impacting academic and social skills, NVLD is characterized by difficulties with reasoning and comprehension, socialization and communication, mathematics and executive functions stemming from a core deficit in visual spatial processing. Primary assets frequently include auditory perception, rote verbal memory and some simple motor and psychomotor skills. Social emotional weaknesses often include adaptation to novelty, social competence, emotional stability and activity level. 
Professionals are currently petitioning for NVLD to be included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) as an official diagnosis mental health professionals and schools use to identify children and adults with learning challenges. Students with NVLD usually carry other diagnoses—often ASD or ADHD. But while those diagnoses list their symptoms or behaviors, they do not fully explain the learning challenges the person is actually struggling with. Without accurate diagnosis and understanding, remediation efforts, despite good intentions, will not be as effective or lasting. 
A person can be diagnosed with ASD in addition to NVLD but a person diagnosed with ASD does not necessarily have NVLD and vice-versa. They are not the same. Autism spectrum disorder is a neurodevelopmental disability characterized by a core deficit in social processing and communication skills. ASD is not a specific learning disorder but can impact language development, overall learning and performance in the classroom due to these social weaknesses. Conversely, NVLD is a specific learning disability rooted in a core deficit of visual spatial processing. Visual spatial processing allows us to identify and comprehend conceptual relationships (i.e., part-whole or cause-effect relationships) and patterns, visualize scenarios, and connect and integrate new information with past experiences to derive meaning and understanding. These are requisite skills for developing mathematical thinking, abstract reading comprehension, accessing and applying executive functions, and fluently understanding and navigating social situations. These weaknesses also impact social emotional learning as conceptual understanding and reasoning are key skills that support the development of problem solving, relationship building, self-reflection, and resilience, to name a few. 
This distinction between NVLD and ASD is integral to our understanding of our students at WPS. Gaining clarity in the underlying challenges impacting a student’s learning and performance guides our intentional, individualized, and explicit skill-building programming and determines the approaches and methods we use to promote student growth. The more deeply understood, the more effectively we can remediate our students’ skills, working towards our ultimate goal of sustainable and independent learning.
Winston Preparatory School is a leading school for students with learning disabilities, including dyslexia, executive functioning difficulties (ADHD), and non-verbal learning disorders (NVLD).

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