Developmental disorders especially affect school-aged children. There is no doubt that they can be really detrimental to their academic training, as well as affecting psychological aspects such as their self-esteem and self-concept.

Among the developmental disorders that have been described, the best known have been those that affect the school curriculum in a more striking way, in addition to the social sphere, such as ADHD and ASD.

However, there is also a disorder in which children do not appear to have any developmental problems, and simply appear to be clumsy or even lazy.

One of them is the non-verbal learning disorder , which we address in this article in addition to presenting its characteristics and warning signs.

What is non-verbal learning disorder?

This is a developmental disorder whose cause is due to neurological problems , specifically a malfunction in the right hemisphere. Since it was first described in 1971, it has received other names: motor coordination disorder, developmental dyspraxia, procedural learning disorder, among others.

People suffering from non-verbal learning disorder have problems in different aspects, especially those related to motor coordination, visuospatial perception and understanding of social context. All of them are related to difficulties when interpreting non-verbal signals .

In the academic field, the abilities that are affected in this disorder are usually put into practice in subjects such as music, physical education or art. For this reason, and given the usual lack of importance given to these subjects, it is frequent that children with this disorder are not seen as people who suffer from a developmental problem, but rather one of attitude. They may be thought of as clumsy or lazy children who do not do their best.

It should also be noted that it is not common for intellectual problems to occur in children diagnosed with this disorder, so it may seem that when problems do occur, it is not really because they have a neurological or psychological problem.

Given its characteristics, non-verbal learning disorder has high co-morbidity with other developmental disorders. About 40% of people diagnosed with this disorder may have some language problem. In addition, other disorders, such as TEL (Specific Language Disorder) may present visuospatial problems, making differential diagnosis difficult.

Characteristics of the disorder

These children suffer from problems, especially in areas related to non-verbal language, motor coordination and visuospatial perception .

They have problems acquiring motor routines, which is why they are often considered to be clumsy and arrhythmic. In addition, they have a slow learning rate in games where several movements are required. This manifests itself in difficulties when learning to use the bicycle, swim, play musical instruments…

As a result of motor problems, it is common for children suffering from this disorder to have trouble writing, making the handwriting unclear and disorganized.

Visuospatial perception is affected , showing itself in the form of difficulties in interpreting a clue to an incomplete visual stimulus. In addition, they may have trouble indicating the distance at which an object is located and its size, in addition to problems of visuospatial organization. This problem may not be as important in the early stages of learning, but by the time they reach secondary school it may become more noticeable.

In addition, there may be problems in tactile perception, especially on the left side of the body. This is related to the fact that the dysfunction is in the right hemisphere, given that its contralateral part is the left hemicorpe.

One of the characteristics that make this disorder misinterpreted as ASD is the fact that there are problems adapting to changes or coping with very new situations. They may also have problems with spatial-temporal orientation, getting lost on the street, and doing tasks more slowly than other children their age.

The great difficulty that gives this disorder its name is related to non-verbal language. Children with non-verbal learning disorder have difficulty interpreting signs which, although not explicitly formulated, take on great importance in communication.

This is another reason why they can be mistaken for high functioning autistic (traditionally referred to as Asperger’s syndrome). They may have problems with pragmatic aspects of language such as prosody and nonliteral meanings. This results in an impairment of their social relationships, since they cannot understand playful behaviors such as jokes or irony and sarcasm.

In spite of all these difficulties, it is important to highlight that children with non-verbal learning disorder have normal intelligence and, in particular, verbal abilities within the average. This means that aspects such as vocabulary, reading and spelling are preserved and, therefore, they do not usually have serious problems in subjects such as mathematics and language.

Symptoms and warning signs

  • Beginning of the early language.
  • Start of the slow march.
  • Difficulty in doing plastic work.
  • Bad at sports.
  • Fine motor difficulties: fastening a bib, putting on a jacket, playing an instrument…
  • Clumsiness.
  • Difficulty in orientation.
  • He doesn’t like the new stuff.
  • Especially ugly and messy writing.
  • Difficulty in interpreting the analog clock.

Emotional distress

In the school environment, children with non-verbal learning disorders suffer problems in subjects in which motor and visuospatial skills are put into practice . As they suffer problems in these skills, but not in others such as reading, which are more related to subjects such as language or mathematics, it is frequent that they are categorised as clumsy or even ill-mannered children.

These kinds of labels can cause a lot of emotional distress in the child, since he doesn’t understand how it is like that, nor does he do it on purpose. This, along with having trouble relating because they don’t understand all the social cues that are sent out non-verbally, these children are seen as odd and lonely.


If the problem is not detected in time, these labels will generate more and more discomfort, affecting your self-esteem and self-concept, and can be very limiting in the future.

It is because of facts like this that a correct and thorough evaluation is needed. Thus, in the case of a child with a non-verbal learning disorder, an intervention plan can be drawn up, as well as providing the teachers and family with strategies to facilitate learning. In addition, it will be possible to educate both teachers and families to avoid using negative terms, such as ‘clumsy’ or ‘lazy’ and to protect the student’s self-esteem .

Bibliographic references:

  • Crespo-Eguílaz, N., & García, J. N. (2009). Procedural learning disorder: neuropsychological characteristics. Journal of Neurology, 49(8), 409-416.
  • García-Nonell, C., Rigau-Ratera, E., & Pallarés, J. A. (2006). Neurocognitive profile of non-verbal learning disorder. Journal of Neurology, 43(5), 268-274.
  • Harnadek, M. C., & Rourke, B. P. (1994). Principal identifying features of the syndrome of nonverbal learning disabilities in children. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 27(3), 144-154.