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Non-verbal learning disability could affect more children than many realized

Researchers want to raise awareness about this disorder

Photo (c) Zoran Zeremski - Getty Images
A new study conducted by researchers from Columbia University Irving Medical Center explored a rather common learning disorder, nonverbal learning disability (NVLD), that could affect millions of children. 

The researchers explained that the criteria for NVLD diagnosis is murky, which leads many children to go undiagnosed. Unfortunately, this means that many children are unable to receive resources that could help them. The researchers also note that while not speaking is one of the primary indicators, children with NVLD also tend to struggle with visual-spatial tasks, like tying their shoes. 

“NVLD is a huge hidden health burden,” said researcher Jeffrey Lieberman. “Their important work might never have come to light if not for the support of dedicated advocates and their philanthropic support. We hope that these findings raise awareness of the disorder and lead to an understanding of its neurobiology and better treatments.” 

Raising awareness

Because many children with NVLD are undetected, or are misdiagnosed with another condition, the researchers wanted to see how widespread the disorder is. 

They observed nearly 2,600 children between the ages of six and 19 and tracked common behaviors of NVLD, including issues with motor skills, basic math, and social skills, among others. 

“Most parents recognize that a child who isn’t talking by age two should be evaluated for a learning disorder,” said researcher Amy E. Margolis, PhD. “But no one thinks twice about kids who have problems with visual-spatial tasks.” 

The researchers learned that NVLD was more common than many may have realized, as roughly four percent of the children involved in the study showed characteristics indicative of the disorder. These findings are important because the results could translate to nearly three million affected children across the U.S. alone. 

The researchers’ goal is to make NVLD more visible to ensure that children are receiving the proper diagnoses. Moving forward, they plan to get NVLD in the DSM-5, which mental health professionals use to make diagnoses for conditions like this one, under a new name: developmental visual spatial disorder. With greater awareness, families will hopefully be able to receive better resources for their children. 

“Diagnosis can be accomplished using basic assessment tools,” said Dr. Margolis. “It doesn’t have to involve complex and costly neuropsychological testing. We envision that all clinicians who use DSM-5 will be able to use our new criteria to determine who may meet criteria. They can then send patients for basic psychological testing that is always available through schools to identify/quantify a problem with visual-spatial processing.” 

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