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Children Who Only See Trees

Children Who Only See Trees

Amy learned to read early. She preferred the library to the playground to avoid bullies and trying to fit in with other children. Her parents excused her loneliness as proof she was “so much smarter” than other children. She excelled at reading and spelling but struggled with math. She broke down in the middle of a math story problem that asked when two trains would arrive in her town at different speeds. “But we don’t have any trains coming to town!” she complained, not understanding it wasn’t a literal question.

One teacher thought Amy was just stubborn. When sharpening her pencil, she ignored the frowns and sighs of children waiting in line behind her. The guidance counselor suggested Amy had an oppositional personality. Amy coped poorly as she moved to junior high. She experienced panic attacks. The other kids thought she was too serious to befriend. She struggled with theme papers, unable to find the underlying meaning of stories. By high school, she was on the brink of severe depression.

What is Wrong?
Non-Verbal Learning Disabilities (NVLD) is a neurological disorder characterized by difficulties with cognitive processing essential to human interaction. Children with NLVD see the details (trees) but miss the larger meaning (forest), not connecting the parts into a whole.

Since human relationships depend on nonverbal communication – body language, facial expression, etc. – children like Amy with NVLD may be labeled as emotionally disturbed. They may develop routines to create security and predictability. Misunderstood and unable to understand unspoken messages from others, their sense of disconnection can result in baffling responses or social avoidance. NVLD – defined by one writer as “smart kids with a cognitive barrier to success” – is subtly different from Asperger Syndrome, a form of high functioning autism.

A Michigan State University study suggests the band of fibers connecting left and right sides of the brain are smaller in those with NVLD than with Asperger’s, ADHD or no learning disabilities. MRIs taken as children watched videos of social interactions showed different brain activity in NVLD compared to Asperger’s. The degree of impaired communication between parts of the brain determines if the condition is mild or severe, and is most often confused with Asperger’s.

NVLD Signs and Symptoms
Gifted in:

  • Auditory attention, learning capability
  • Rote memory advanced storage of facts
  • Strong literacy
  • Verbal expression, language abilities

Challenged by:

  • Symbolism, double meanings of words, humor, sarcasm
  • Understanding body language, intuitive response, meeting and keeping friends
  • Small motor skills, handwriting, physical coordination/sports
  • Organization of visual/spatial information, math problem-solving, visual puzzles, geography, maps

Children with NVLD may exhibit a flat tone of voice and prefer playing alone or with one companion. Change is difficult. They may experience low self-esteem, anxiety, depression and fear of open spaces (agoraphobia).

Playing in the Forest: How to Help

  • A variety of coping strategies may improve the situation at home and in school:
  • Plan for routine. Explain how certain actions result in predictable outcomes.
  • Communicate without double meanings, metaphors or sarcasm.
  • Arrange play dates with children coping with similar challenges. Discuss and role-play eye contact, personal space, etc.
  • Explore interest in classes (dance, martial arts, swimming, etc.) to fortify physical and social skills.
  • Educate school leaders about NVLD and how they can support the child’s learning plan.
  • Request customized test processes and rewarding the child for following instructions/completing homework.
  • Ensure the school protects the child from bullying and punitive discipline for NVLD symptoms.

Symptoms of NVLD may be improved through treatment:

  • Enhance peer relationship and build friendships through social skills training groups.
  • Build muscle tone and motor skill coordination through occupational therapy.
  • Improve attention and visual-spatial reasoning through cognitive skills training.
  • Reduce anxiety and emotional turbulence with behavioral therapy.

Fortunately for Amy, she was diagnosed and received the needed adaptations and treatment. She made friends, went on to college and became an excellent librarian. Everyone marveled at her attention to detail. And since life always offers growth, occasionally she found she enjoyed a book… of poetry.