The Mountain of Socialization and Nonverbal Learning Disabilities Part 1

Introduction to the NLD Mountain

In this article, I introduced the analogy of nonverbal learning disability (or any disability) as a mountain between where you are, and where you want to go. In the next series of articles, I will address five specific problems that many NLDers have, and how they create mountains:

  • Socialization
  • Sensory overload
  • Academics
  • Organization and visual spatial problems
  • Zero-order skills


This article is the first of two on socialization problems.

In later articles, I will look at how the different strategies for dealing with the mountain can work.

Socialization problems and the NLD mountain

Many people with nonverbal learning disabilities (NLD) have tremendous problems making friends. We can be gullible and too trusting, and we can have trouble with transitions between the levels of a relationship (that is, we may try to jump from casual acquaintance to deepest intimacy in ways that make others feel very awkward). We have tremendous problems reading all the social cues that go along with language (tone of voice, facial expression, body language, and so on). We have trouble telling good natured teasing from meanness; we have trouble telling what things are told in confidence and which are open.

Verbal and nonverbal communication and the mountain of nonverbal learning disabilities

You will see various numbers quoted in various places about how much is communicated verbally and nonverbally. I don’t think the exact numbers are important. I’m not even sure they are meaningful. I don’t know if you can divide meaning up that way. But nonverbal communication is clearly important. To see just how important it is, try watching a favorite TV show with the sound turned off. You still get quite a lot, don’t you? Now try watching the show with your eyes closed. Even if it’s a show where people don’t move around much, you miss a lot, right? That’s how we NLD people are. We watch life with our eyes closed. We miss a lot.

Nonverbal communication can be divided into several sorts of skills; different authors divide it slightly differently, Duke and his colleagues divide it like this:

1. Paralanguage
2. Facial expression
3. Space and touch
4. Gestures and posture
5. Rhythm and tone

(source: Nowicki and Duke)

Paralanguage and the mountain of nonverbal learning disability

Paralanguage includes all the aspects of sound that accompany speech: Tone, volume, rate of speech, and nonverbal sound patterns (all the ums, uhs, and so on while speaking). Paralanguage is especially important when you cannot see the person you are talking to, for instance, on the telephone.

Children respond to tone of voice before they learn any vocabulary. Tone of voice is critical in communicating such things as sarcasm, and, on a more basic level, to telling the difference between a simple statement: `John is late’, an angry exclamation:`John is late!’ or a question `John is late?’. Many NLD people have problems both with understanding tone and with producing the appropriate tone. The former leads to confusion on the NLDers part, and the latter can lead to conflict between what NLDers are saying and how they say it; for example, saying `Have a good day!’ in an angry tone is likely to confuse the person you are talking to. Tone of voice communicates emotions such as anger, sadness, happiness, or excitement.

Nonverbal sound patterns refers to all the noises we make while speaking that aren’t words. Sounds like `Uh-huh’ (for yes) and `UhUh’ for no (notice how similar these are, yet NT people hear the difference without a problem). `Mmmm-mmmm-mmmm’ can be a warning (when the second part is louder than the first, and the third is in a rising-falling pitch) or a sound of delight. NLD people can have a lot of trouble hearing these.

Rate of speech varies from person to person and from culture to culture. For example, people from the southern United States often speak more slowly than people from New York City. But NT people from all places use rate of speech to communicate meaning; and they also read meaning into rate of speech. Slow speech can be soothing (as when a parent tries to calm an upset child) but it can also make the speaker appear ignorant or nervous (as when someone speaks slowly when called on in class). Contrariwise, rapid speech can excite people, and can make the speaker appear knowledgable, but it can also confuse people. Slower speech is also used when explaining something. Faster speech can express confidence, or it can express being rushed or nervous. Combined with loudness, it can indicate an emergency. NT people vary their rates of speech easily and unconsciously, but NLD people may have a lot of trouble with this.

Emphasis and variation can radically change the meaning of a sentence. Duke, Nowicki and Martin give the following illustration (which I have changed a little): Take the sentence `I didn’t say John took my money’. This sentence can mean at least seven different things.

1. That you didn’t say John took your money.
2. That someone else said that John took your money.
3. That, although you didn’t \emph{say} John took it, you think he did.
4. That you said someone other than John took your money.
5. That you loaned or gave John money
6. That John took someone else’s money.
7 That John took something else of yours.

How can it mean all these different things? Try saying the sentence first with no emphasis, and then emphasizing each different word.

Facial expression and the NLD mountain

Many people with nonverbal learning disabilities have a lot of problems recognizing facial expressions. Some of us don’t recognize them at all. Others may recognize the basic emotions (e.g., anger, fear, sadness) especially in photographs, but have difficulty doing this in `real time’, and may have difficulty with more subtle emotions. One young NLDer played with a computer game from Sesame Street. He mastered most of the activities easily, but one asked him to paste eyes, a nose, and mouth on Elmo to make a `happy’, `sad’, or `angry’ face, and he had enormous problems with this.

This can cause a lot of problems and confusion. Imagine the confusion caused someone speaking excitedly, but with a bored or expressionless face. Or the confusion felt by someone who doesn’t interpret the facial expressions of others.

Space, touch, and nonverbal learning disabilities

Personal space refers to a sort of `bubble’ that we all carry around with us all the time \dash or rather, several bubbles. People get nervous or upset when others come into their bubbles in ways they deem inappropriate (or, sometimes, when they stay out of those bubbles). One common way of classifying these bubbles is

1. Intimate
2. Personal
3. Social
4. Public

The intimate bubble is reserved for very close friends and relatives, and for discussion of highly personal questions.

The personal bubble is used for general conversations between two people, or among a few. The social bubble is for people we have just met, or for discussions with larger groups, and the outermost, public bubble is for everything else, but it usually excludes conversation, except in emergencies.

The size of these bubbles varies from culture to culture. Research in the United States suggests that the intimate bubble goes out to about 18 inches, the personal bubble from 18 inches to 4 feet, the social bubble from 4 feet to 12 feet, and the public bubble from 12 feet to infinity (source: Nowicki et al, p. 44) NLDers often have trouble with both their own bubbles and those of others. We may be overly sensitive to people being in our bubbles, or we may act in ways that are not `bubble-appropriate’. The amount of touch that is permissible or encouraged also varies tremendously from culture to culture. (source: LaVoie).

Within a culture, it varies from situation to situation. Touching people more or less than their culture deems proper in a particular situation is another source of trouble for NLDers. If we touch too much, we seem pushy and aggressive (and, in the worst case, we may seem like we are harassing the other person). If we touch too little, we seem cold and indifferent. In reality, though, we may be none of these things, but simply be confused.

Not only must we worry about how much to touch, but where on the body it is appropriate to touch, and what these touches mean. This is further confused because the same touch means different things in different situations. Bumping into someone in a crowded train is not the same as bumping someone on an empty street. Touches that are appropriate in a doctor’s office or between lovers (but which mean very different things in the two cases!) are not appropriate in other situations.

The use (and abuse) of space and touch is another illustration of the problems NLDers have. These issues are not formally taught, like math or reading. If asked, most people would probably say that they know the right amount of space to use or the right touch to use through intuition. This cannot be the case. If these were known by intuition, they would not vary from culture to culture. They are learned behaviors, but they are taught informally and through nonverbal means. NT children read the nonverbal lessons, NLDers have much more trouble doing so.

In addition, when the rules are broken, NTers may not be able or willing to say exactly what is wrong in ways that NLDers can understand. They know something is wrong, but they may not know what; or, if they do know what it is, they may assume that the other person deliberately violated the rules, or that the other person is simply `weird’ or `stupid’. At the least, this can lead to social rejection or ostracism; in some cases, it can lead to violence. (source Duke et al, Chapter 6)

Gestures and postures and nonverbal learning disabilities
Gestures and postures are similar in that they both involve the use of the body to communicate, and in that they communicate at a distance. One difference is that postures are inevitable \dash we always adapt one posture or another, while gestures are, if not exactly deliberate, at least somewhat voluntary. Another difference is that gestures involve only part of the body (most often the hands) while postures involve the entire body. NTers use a huge array of gestures and postures, and they read others’ use of these without even thinking about it. One way to concentrate your attention on gestures is, again, to watch a movie or TV show with the sound off. But here this exercise is incomplete, because, often, gestures are used to accentuate and explicate the meaning of words. For example, the word `Stop’ has many meanings. As a command, it can mean `Stop moving forward’ as when warning someone to not get closer to you, or it can mean `stop acting that way’ as when telling a children that they are out of control. The first meaning might be accompanied by holding your arm straight out with your wrist bent and your fingers up, while the latter might be accompanied by shaking your finger at someone. Use of the right gesture intensifies and clarifies what the word means; use of the wrong gesture leads to confusion.


Nowicki, S. and Duke, M.P (1992). Helping the child who doesn’t fit in

Duke, M.P., Martin, E.A. and Nowicki, S. (1996). Teaching your child the language of social success

LaVoie, R (2006) It’s so much work to be your friend


  1. nvldishautist says

    Why not name it just as mild pervasive developmental disorder. I was “terrible” in nonverbal communication from early childhood. Chronic, developmental, profound dyssemia:) NLD is really often mild to moderate PDD. I understand PDD as something like intellectual disability. It can be mild, moderate, severe and profound. Rett syndrome nad childhood disintegrative disorder are examples of profound PDDs. Classic autism (which includes severe forms of AS for me) od usually severe to profound PDD. NLD is often mild or moderate PDD. Even more severe forms of PDD have not to occur with intellectual disability. It is possible that an autist who can’t speak mat (although very rarely) have above average IQ.

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