Public attention to Rock’s NVLD diagnosis may help to reduce stigma and pave the way for improving interventions in the future.
Nonverbal learning disorder (NVLD) is a neurodevelopmental disability that affects an individual’s ability to process nonverbal information. Symptoms of NVLD may vary between children and adults.
In 2020, comedian Chris Rock shared that he was diagnosed with NVLD at 55 years old. Fast forward to 2022, and Rock’s NVLD gained attention shortly after he was slapped by actor Will Smith onstage at the 94th Academy Awards.
The public’s focus on Rock’s learning disability sparked an important conversation about NVLD and why representation in the media matters for reducing stigma.
Similar to when Elon Musk shared he has Asperger’s syndrome, a condition that’s considered part of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), Rock opening up about NVLD is an example of positive representation for those with neurodevelopmental disabilities.
- math and related subjects
- fine motor skills and motor planning
- visual and spatial reasoning
- identifying patterns
- social communication
- executive functioning
Rebecca Mannis, PhD, a learning specialist with Ivy Prep, says that understanding NVLD is key for intervention, especially among students.
“People with nonverbal learning disability can also show up having difficulty with notetaking or annotation, or with higher-order inferencing skills as they approach middle school and upper school,” Mannis says.
“If it’s difficult for them to absorb and sort through information, their answers or information can often be much more reductionist than what they truly can understand and provide.”
NVLD is similar to other neurodevelopmental disorders like ASD and attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD) and is often conflated or misdiagnosed as one or the other.
Because of the similar qualities shared by these conditions, it can be difficult to determine the difference.
For example, a student’s trouble with scanning material could be reduced to inattentiveness or carelessness, and may subsequently be screened for ADHD.
NVLD vs ADHD
Folks with NVLD and ADHD may each have difficulty controlling their impulses, and may also be more prone to excessive talking and interrupting. Other shared difficulties may include:
- inability to focus
- trouble staying organized
- completing tasks
- navigating social situations and collaborations
Compared to ADHD, children with NVLD are more likely to have complications with nonverbal skills like math and even fine motor skills like using scissors.
NVLD vs ASD
The inability to process nonverbal communication is a key trait of NVLD, but those with ASD may also experience challenges understanding nonverbal communication cues in social settings.
Renetta Weaver, a licensed clinical social worker and therapist based in Maryland, says people with NVLD and ASD may have difficulty in nonverbal situations such as reading the room and picking up on social cues.
“A person might be viewed as socially awkward or odd, and is very literal, has black and white thinking, and doesn’t pick up on jokes or innuendos,” Weaver says.
Another commonality between ASD and NVLD is that folks with these conditions often have difficulty making and keeping friends — even during adulthood.
“As adults, the impact can be seen in personal and professional relationships,” Weaver says.
“Their partner might not be satisfied with the communication, and interactions while at work supervisors and colleagues might feel that a person with [NVLD or ASD] is underperforming and has poor work performance.”
Key differences between NVLD and ASD are speech and sensory challenges. Folks with NVLD may excel at language, speech, and reading, whereas this is a common problem area for autistic folks.
In addition, stimming is common for autistic individuals. While many people stim, including nondisabled folks and those with NVLD, stimming is more likely to lead to disruptive behaviors among autistic people.
And oftentimes, autistic folks are also more likely to become overwhelmed by sensory stimuli, which is less common for those with NVLD.
There are no official medications or therapies specific to NVLD.
But parents could try addressing each of their child’s challenges individually. This may look like:
- being mindful of potential distractions and planning ahead
- writing out to-do lists and instructions
- requesting accommodations for extra time for assignments and deadlines
- choosing therapy options to address specific challenges (i.e., behavioral or physical therapy)
However, these suggestions aren’t one-size-fits-all.
According to Mannis, it can be more helpful to address the unique needs of a person with NVLD, rather than focus on general skill deficits or time-management issues, and accommodate those needs accordingly.
“Just helping a person plan when they will do [their school work] is not the same as teaching the person how to annotate tactically and how to fluently put the ideas in order,” Mannis explains.
“[The student] is not well served just being taught how to put information and deadlines into a Google calendar. That person needs to learn how to tabulate information, how to memorize details for an exam, and how to [organize] information.”
Stil, Mannis says that many students are placed in settings or classes that don’t accommodate their needs. In her experience, she says that kids are often put in classes below their skill or intelligence level because they’re unable to demonstrate what they know through the usual modes of assessment.
“To my mind, this is going to be the next great ADA civil rights issue around test accommodations. I am currently tasked every single week and advocating for students who require specific accommodations.”
The public discussion of Rock’s NVLD diagnosis has brought more awareness to the condition, which may help reduce the stigma.
“Hopefully discussing NVLD will be an opportunity for us to look In a more nuanced and compassionate way about it and about other disorders,” Mannis says.
To end the stigma around NVLD, folks with this condition need access to mental health care and educational resources, and accommodations in classrooms. They also need love and support from their caregivers.
Folks with NVLD in marginalized communities may also face additional challenges.
“There continue to be some long-standing barriers [to] Communities of Color getting the mental health and medical care [they need] to help them survive and thrive, [including] the mistrust that People of Color have toward the medical community,” Weaver says.
“Another is the stigmatized view that People of Color might have when it comes to being diagnosed. Racial disparities are real because a lot of symptoms among People of Color could easily be mislabeled, demonized, and criminalized.”
Changes to diagnostic criteria
While NVLD is acknowledged as a learning disability within schools, NVLD is no longer recognized as a clinical disorder by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5).
“It’s a disservice to people with nonverbal learning disabilities when they are misdiagnosed as having poor attention or anxiety problems,” Mannis says.
“Since the DSM no longer classifies nonverbal learning disability as a disorder, there’s tremendous debate in the diagnostic community and in how accommodations are provided to people.”
Removing some of the barriers to care and improving accommodations could help make those with NVLD feel more comfortable, understood, and acknowledged by society.
And when more people with NVLD are appropriately diagnosed, it may help increase funding for research and treatments, which could help make a case for future inclusion in the DSM-5.
Increased representation like Chris Rock and inclusion in the DSM-5 could help reduce the stigma around NVLD.
If you’ve noticed that you or your child are exhibiting some of the nonverbal difficulties of NVLD, you may wish to meet with a clinician for more guidance. But since there are varying opinions on NVLD, you might consider doing some research first.
If and when you do meet with a learning specialist or therapist, Mannis says it may be helpful to get a sense of their methodology and treatment plan before agreeing to move forward.
“It’s critical that you quiz the person and properly interview them to understand how [they] approach NVLD at different ages and stages,” Mannis says.