The words “nonverbal learning disability” sound clunky and made up. What does it even mean? Does it mean you can’t speak? Does it mean you can’t read? According to one of my old teachers, it meant I had poor handwriting.
The disability itself is not spoken about often. Its name is quieter than the diagnosis. A nonverbal learning disability means that almost everything that is not spoken or written down is misunderstood: where my body is in space. Balance and coordination. Reading facial cues. Sensory overload. These are the problems that I face. Without words, I am lost.
I was first diagnosed with a nonverbal learning disability in kindergarten. Kindergarten was the first place I could not escape. It stretched on forever. Hour after hour of constant stimulation left me feeling raw. There were noisy kids who wanted to play. They were dirty, rowdy, and they always needed projects, something I had very little interest in. I preferred talking or writing stories.
On the playground, kids do not have quiet conversations or write in their notebooks. There was no structure during recess. Kids could do whatever they wanted as long as it was active and with other children. Both of these possibilities terrified me. I did not walk like other children and when I did, I noticed people staring. A few children had taken to calling me ‘retarded’ on the playground. After going outside for one week, I started hiding in the orange cubbyholes in the back of the classroom.
Every afternoon at 1:00, right after lunch, I would slip away when no one was looking. The kids would rush in a crowd, pushing their sticky fingers onto the backs of other children to try and claw their way to the door leading outside. It was during this mass of chaos that I carefully made my way to the back of the classroom, toward the cubbies.
This was a great plan. Not only could I be by myself, but I was also underneath piles of warm backpacks and coats, protecting me from anyone who could possibly bump into me. Little did I know, the teachers had caught on.
After several months of this behavior, I got a call to the office from the loudspeaker.
“Ooooh,” the kids turned and stared at me. I was never the trouble maker. How could this happen?
Mrs. Brockingham smiled at me and led me by the hand up the windowless hallway to the office. I liked the office. There was no playing allowed. Even if you really wanted to play, you couldn’t. Instead, nice adults who wanted to talk were quietly working by themselves, with schedules taped all around them. They had to make phone calls, which involved no touching or loud noises. They wrote down things on their computer that looked organized and professional. They also called me names like ‘sweetie’ and ‘honey.’ This was the perfect escape.
Inside one of the very back rooms stood a man in a buttondown shirt and dress pants. He extended his hand and introduced himself to me. I shook his hand. It was the polite thing to do.
“Do you like school?” he asked. I stared at the chair legs beneath him. It felt too intense to look people in the eye and I preferred to keep watch of my surroundings instead.
I nodded. It was a lie.
“What’s your favorite thing to do in school?”
“Listening,” I said.
“Story time,” I said.
After a few more questions, the man then asked me to do something I was definitely not comfortable doing. He wanted me to play. He pulled over a large plastic container full of blocks and asked me if I wanted to play. I shook my head.
“Can you play with these blocks for me?”
I nodded. It was the polite thing to do.
I set my blocks up in a line and then waited for awhile. “Do you want to talk?” I asked nervously. Usually grownups liked to talk. Grownups never wanted to play and playing was a private thing anyway. If they did play, I never saw them.
The man then showed me a picture of a house. It had two square blocks, one long block at the bottom, and a triangle block at the top. He asked me if I could put this together using the differently shaped blocks.
My throat clenched up. I could feel my heart pulsing. I wanted to scream. I hated this. I tried for a long time to match the blocks with the picture, but to my dismay, could not do it. The square blocks seemed bulky and didn’t quite fit in my hands. I pushed the long block and the square block together, but it didn’t look like the center of the house. Nothing fit together and I started to fear that this might be a trick. After what seemed like forever, the man nodded and said I could put the blocks away.
For the duration of a week I was called to see this man. I was torn. I liked leaving the busy classroom to be one on one with this man, and he seemed nice enough, but I hated what he asked me to do. Every day I would be doing something physical. I would bounce a basketball, stand on one leg and hop, play with blocks, tell stories with toys, and pick away at puzzles. As well as playing, he would show pictures of people with different faces. Some of them had slanted eyebrows, some of them were smiling. I was supposed to match which of these faces went with which emotion. These were things I just couldn’t do.
When I no longer saw the man, I was sad. I thought this would be the last time I would be able to leave the classroom. I was wrong. Once a week I was called up to a special room in the office where only a select group of kids went.
I wouldn’t know about my nonverbal learning disability diagnosis until high school. I didn’t know that it meant my verbal IQ is considerably higher than average while my performance IQ is considerably lower than average.
When I went up to the office every Tuesday morning, all I knew was that there were other outcasts waiting for me in the brightly lit back room. There was the nose picker. The boy who wore ear plugs. The girl with a speech impediment. And me. Together we sat in a room while a teacher showed us flash cards with people drawn on them. Together we tried to figure out their emotions.
Through interventions like special ed and occupational therapy, I was better able to understand both the way my body moved in space and my social skills. While both are considerably better, I still cannot drive a car and navigating social roles with people I don’t know can be tricky.
One morning last year, a middle-aged landscaper knocked on my door in the middle of the pouring rain. He was soaking wet and without even thinking about it, I invited him into my apartment for a cup of coffee. Thankfully the man was of no threat; however, he stayed for two uncomfortable hours while I listened to him talk about his previous crack addiction. I finally told him I had to go to an appointment and that he’d have to leave.
Several days later a woman was abducted from a street nearby. She was last seen talking to a homeless person on the side of the street. She didn’t know the man, people speculated. He was a stranger, people said.
Although socializing can have its difficulties, my main problem has always been sensory processing. The world is overwhelming. When I walk down the street, I jam my headphones into my ears so there is only one form of stimulation going on at one time. When I am in a crowded area, I’ll wear extra clothing so that people won’t bump into me.
Although my words get me far, they do not protect me from the hustle and bustle of the world. Frequently, when I’m worn out from stimulation such as honking horns or bright lights, I will panic. My heart flies a mile a minute. My head explodes. Nothing makes sense. It is a sensory overload.
When I was a teenager, I would get so overwhelmed that I would bang my head repeatedly against the brick wall in my father’s living room. I lashed out at other people. I opened my car door while my mother was driving down the highway. In short, I am prone to meltdowns.
I was taken to several different therapists, but none of them had heard of a nonverbal learning disability. This is why I’m writing. Living with a nonverbal learning disability means the life that I understand is only a piece of the puzzle.
I see the world through words. I feel the world through voice. I live in the world through a private sense of personal understanding. Although most people don’t talk about nonverbal learning disabilities, the diagnosis rings loudly. I hear its echo in everything I do.
Child with blocks photo available from Shutterstock