I would like to tell you a personal story that motivated me to be the psychotherapist I am today. I hope to convey to you my genuine personal and professional expertise in managing a nonverbal learning disorder, a complex neurological profile that consists of a specific set of strengths in verbal and written memory, with weaknesses in visual-spatial learning, fine motor skills, adaptability to novel situations, abstract reasoning, and decoding body language (Frankenberger Carly, 2012). My story begins during my early childhood in Berkeley California, when I exhibited a fascination with books about World War II, often memorizing different battles and important events that I was eager to share with my parents and anyone else who would listen. I also had a precocious vocabulary for my age, and as the son of two university professors, it seemed natural that I would fit one of the descriptors so often used to describe children with this neurological condition, “little professors” (Schonfeld, 2009). Teachers also took note of my compassion and kindness towards other children, especially to those who were excluded or bullied; in retrospect, this may have been motivated by my own sensitivity to feelings of difference due to my NVLD.
While on the outside, I may have fit the profile of an advanced and engaged learner, I was not without challenges; starting in pre-school, I struggled to tie my shoes, draw pictures, and at times, even to navigate between different parts of the school building. By the second grade, my parents were aware that something may have been amiss, and I received a neuropsychological evaluation that showed a strong discrepancy between my verbal and performance scores. For elementary and middle school, I attended a specialized private school where teachers were trained to work with students with learning differences. Subsequently, I attended a small private high school, where small class size and extra attention from teachers facilitated the learning process for students who had struggled in more traditional academic environments. Through very hard work and personal sacrifices, I was able to graduate with honors and acceptances to various branches of the University of California, as well as a variety of liberal arts colleges. My final college decision was based on selecting an institution that would support my unique interests and strengths in international relations, political science, and social justice, which I had developed thanks to my advanced vocabulary and writing skills. I ultimately selected Earlham College, a small Midwestern liberal arts college with a Quaker heritage and a long tradition of support for social justice. I graduated in 2007 with a strong GPA and a major in Peace and Global Studies. Following stints as an international volunteer in Chile and El Salvador, I decided to complete a Masters in Social Work degree from New York University, where I graduated with honors in 2011.
After graduation, the demands of independent life in New York City were complicated by my NVLD. I found the transition to the work force highly stressful, especially in a field such as clinical social work, which requires multiple transitions, crisis management, multi-tasking, and decoding body language from clients, employers, and colleagues in a fast-paced environment. Initially, I struggled to find systems to not only organize and prioritize between different tasks, but also to cope with what felt like constant anxiety every time I left for work in the morning, dreading what seemed like mundane tasks to others, such as folding letters and filling out forms. After some initial setbacks, I developed a few compensatory strategies, such as breaking down my day to allow for extra time for filling out forms and other kinds of onerous paperwork, asking colleagues to assist me with tasks that required fine motor skills, completing some forms on the computer, and consulting my co-workers regarding interpersonal dynamics that seemed especially difficult to decode. I was also able to make schedules and lists to help me stay organized during the day. Despite some setbacks, I am proud to say that I have been providing psychotherapy and practical advice to children, adolescents, and young adults with learning differences, helping them to reach their full potential in the classroom and on the job, while also assisting parents to advocate for their children’s needs and obtain the most effective programs and services. I also work with young adults to help them feel comfortable in advocating for their needs in the work place, assisting them in acquiring the services and developing strategies that will help them to be successful. At times, individuals with this neurological condition will not receive a diagnosis until young adulthood, due to the fact that NVLD is frequently considered “invisible” in that its characteristics are frequently less conspicuous than in other learning differences (Konigsberg, 2011). Therefore, I work with clients to better understand their disability and its impact on their daily functioning.
The challenges I faced in the workplace stemmed in part from the need to quickly transition between a variety of different social and professional environments, each with its own rules and expectations. A common symptom of NVLD in children is difficulty with transitions and adaptations, especially when new visual and spatial information are involved (Patino, 2014) As a young adult, I struggled with the fluid transitions young adults are expected to navigate on a daily basis. For example, while enrolled in a training program for therapists, I had been encouraged to share my thoughts and feelings regarding specific dynamics in therapy sessions, and continued to do so in my place of employment. However, I quickly found myself out of sync with the norms and expectations of my workplace. I experienced similar challenges while adapting to different social situations, sometimes feeling overwhelmed by increasingly harsh and judgmental world of dating. At times, I felt frustrated, demoralized, and alone, but I didn’t want to give up. I felt that rather than exclusively focusing on concrete skills, I needed more time to process the complexity of the interpersonal relationships and transitions I was experiencing. I thought that I would be best served by a psychotherapist who specifically understood my neurological profile and the challenges it created in navigating some of the complexities of the adult world. Ultimately, by examining the specific dynamics I found challenging at work and in the social arena, such as deciding how and when to disclose my learning disability, and practicing reviewing and interpreting different forms of non-verbal communication, I began to identify and implement different strategies for finding employment and social success. Ultimately, I was able to reach a level of personal and professional success, and I would like to help others do the same.
There is no doubt that young adults with NVLD face a unique set of challenges that arise from an increasingly independent lifestyle, where multiple deadlines must be met, interpersonal communication happens at a quicker pace on a verbal and non-verbal level, and multiple adaptations and transitions are expected in different life arenas, from the social to professional. Based on my own experiences, I have found that by using our strengths in verbal expression to interpret and understand social nuances in interpersonal and professional relationships, as well as create systems to ease the transition between different environments, young adults with NVLD can become successful in all facets of their lives.
In the work place, one of the first skills that I learned was to verbalize all the steps I needed to complete during the day. I wrote out a daily planner that afforded me more time for the tasks that I knew to be especially difficult and/or challenging, while verbalizing each part of the task. If I had to fold or file a specific set of papers, I made sure to verbalize to myself each of the step involved, making statements such as “first I fold across the middle, then I file in the third cabinet above the right hand corner.” Sometimes, I wrote out a specific set of steps and read them to myself before the work day. I use similar strategies to help my clients complete assignments at work. I also help young adults with NVLD to use their verbal strengths to explain their needs to their boss or supervisor. Some young adults with NVLD may feel uncomfortable or unsure of how to best disclose their specific learning disability, especially if we do not want to be perceived as “different” or “special.” Therefore, I role play different situations during which clients practice disclosing their learning difference to their bosses and supervisors, until they feel completely comfortable doing so.
In the social world, young adults with NVLD may benefit from processing and understanding specific social interactions with a supportive psychotherapist who also understands their specific needs and challenges, and who will also work with them on building social confidence. As a therapist, I draw on the strengths of the individual, helping him or her to walk through social situations that may seem confusing. Since body language can be challenging for young adults with NVLD, I may coach them to focus on the words that are being said, and then to consider the tone and context in which they were said. I may also demonstrate different posture and facial expressions to help clients interpret the nuances of body language.
Disclosing NVLD to a loved one can be challenging, especially without the confidence that one’s partner understands this neurological condition. Dating an individual with NVLD can also be difficult for the other partner. Therefore, it is especially important for a young adult with this neurological profile to develop a greater sense of comfort in identifying and expressing the ways that NVLD affects their interactions with their romantic companion. I also remind clients of their unique strengths, as many individuals with NVLD are also kind, compassionate, and articulate individuals who are capable of maintaining meaningful romantic relationships.
I help my clients to develop the professional and interpersonal skills they need to lead productive professional and personal lives. I am also proof of the fact that with the right support, young adults with NVLD can be successful, and finding a psychotherapist who understands this unique neurological condition is an important asset for achieving this success. Please call me for a free initial 15 minute phone consultation, and I look forward to speaking with you.
Frankenberger Carly, E. (2012). Non-Verbal Learning Disabilities: An Emerging Profile. Retrieved from NLD on the Web: http://www.nldontheweb.org/nldentrylevelreading/nvldanemergingprofile.html
Konigsberg, N. (2011, March 28). NLD – an invisible disorder you should know about. Retrieved from Milestone Mom: A Therapist’s Guide To Making Milestone’s Happen: http://www.milestonemom.com/nld-an-invisible-disorder-you-should-know-about/
Patino, E. (2014, May 21). Understanding Nonverbal Learning Disabilities . Retrieved from Understood: https://www.understood.org/en/learning-attention-issues/child-learning-disabilities/nonverbal-learning-disabilities/understanding-nonverbal-learning-disabilities
Schonfeld, R. (2009, April 17th). The Paradox Of The ‘Little Professor’. Brooklyn, NY, USA.