Is Nonverbal Learning Disability as bad as it seems?
June 12, 2011 10:53 AM   Subscribe

How do I look forward and be optimistic when the more I learn about my son's Nonverbal Learning Disability the more scared and grief-stricken I become? He's almost 17 and will be a junior in September in public high school, and he's been unsuccessful at everything he's ever tried to do.

Previously he was diagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome at 5 years old, but in April we had a neuropsych eval that scratched that, and determined him NLD. He had lots of interventions as a young child with the dx of Aspergers that really helped...occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech therapy and social skills classes, so its not like he has been without support. He had accommodations in grade school and middle school, never an IEP, and his grades have mostly been average to above average, except of course in math.

His executive function has always been ridiculous and this year he started to melt down pretty bad and begged us to put him on meds for attention deficit, hence the April neuropsych eval. He started Concerta a month ago and he was pretty psyched about it the first 2 weeks, but the last 2 weeks seem to him a let down. We go back to the pediatrician next week to follow up if this med is working or not, and he starts psychological counseling with the group that did the eval next week as well.

Meanwhile, I'm realizing how dead-on the diagnosis of NLD over Aspergers is and I'm feeling more despondent as I look into it because the outlook seems much bleaker. I feel as if it were Aspergers, then he would eventually settle on an 'obsession' and make his way in the world with it, happy unto himself. But now learning about NLD I'm afraid all his 'gifted' verbal strengths really add up to gobbledygook and the cold hard truth is he won't be able to get ahead and loneliness, anxiety and depression will get him.

He's a very physically fit and very good looking kid (weightlifting and nutrition we thought might have been his latest AS 'obsession') which just seems like cruel irony because I think the world expects so much more from this seemingly bright kid. He's only ever had vague sets of friends through the years and no one ever really close and he's always eventually pinched out. Now he's suffering the realization that he's a 'joke' on his recreational baseball team and he wanted more than anything to be respected and hold his own on the no-cut high school football team, but he just doesn't have it and now he's brokenheartedly about to give it up (for the best IMO,) and it's just wreaking havoc with his self-esteem, making him very angry and shut down. Now we're trying to teach him to drive and it feels impossible (driving school etc) and he feels like such a loser, and we're all thinking the same there anything this kid can do?

So how do I dismiss the possibility (and should I) that this kid just might never make it out there on his own and how do I help him keep hope alive?
posted by maloon to Human Relations (14 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Ask him what kind of help he wants from you, at that age he may know best.

It is okay to be pessimistic, do not punish yourself for your feelings.
posted by By The Grace of God at 11:01 AM on June 12, 2011

Do you have any support from any parent groups for those in a similar situation (online or in person)? I live in a community with very fine supportive housing programs for those with neuro/developmental disabilities, and if a program like that is appropriate and acceptable for your son, from what I can tell there are some very happy adults living full lives in that setting (jobs, friends, romantic relationships, etc.).
posted by availablelight at 11:23 AM on June 12, 2011

High school, both as a social scene and an educational institution, is probably more focused on fitting in and staying on track than just about any other stage in life. That's hard for a pretty good chunk of the populace, learning disabled or not. And you're just now figuring out the real reason why it's even harder for your son. That's a tough situation, and it's probably got you both down.

But the good news is a lot of assumptions about how people 'should' be really don't matter much after high school. Some people don't drive. Hardly anyone's on a football team. Post-secondary education is common, but often a cruel sham that delays finding a happy niche in a trade/service industry. Look around at all the people in the world you normally don't notice--people other than your friends, family, and colleagues--and think about whether they're happy or not. There's a good chance they are and may be doing something your son could succeed at. Finding a support group where you can hear about how people have made it later on in life is a great idea.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 11:28 AM on June 12, 2011 [8 favorites]

I have taught at a college (if you're not in the US, this means university level courses but in setting with many fewer students so the students have a lot of direct contact with faculty) where there were a number of students with NLD diagnoses, and there were a lot of support services for them. They had their difficulties, yes, but they were still passing college courses and getting involved in college activities and making friends and so on.

I think you're right to be thinking about finding a space where he can have success. Maybe he would enjoy doing a more niche sport, that draws on whatever his own strengths are - wrestling, archery, judo, rowing, triathlons, ...? A lot of these niche sports create their own social scene. Or what about some activity that isn't a sport -- could he do "tech" work in the theater, like building sets and that kind of thing?
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:53 AM on June 12, 2011

Also - is he responsible? Could you find him a situation where he's a semi-supervised camp counselor working with younger kids? That would be a situation where he builds a sense of being a successful older kid, that the younger kids look up to. (Maybe this is not something that would work given his combination of strengths; please disregard if so.)
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:59 AM on June 12, 2011

He has succeeded at becoming fit and at weightlifting, and he's maintained good grades in most subjects. That's more than many others can do. If he can keep in mind that he doesn't fail at everything he tries, he may feel less frustrated. High school tends to be narrow and ungenerous. Lobstermitten's idea of your son sharing what he knows with younger people is great. In the county where I live now (in Ohio) there's a wilderness rehabilitation program designed for high school students. Something like that (if that's where his interests lie, and if there is something similar around) could be enjoyable for him, and let him see that he's capable of something really useful and out of the ordinary.
posted by Francolin at 1:03 PM on June 12, 2011 [2 favorites]

If he's had average to above average grades, he has *not* been unsuccessful at everything he's ever tried to do. He's been unsuccessful at some things and reasonably successful at others. Team sports might not be his thing, but there are a lot of solo athletic activities one can do (running, cycling, etc) which don't require being judged against a standard of other people. And they're more maintainable after graduation. Look at your average football player's fitness level when they hit thirty or forty--it's not good.

Lots of successful adults I know were at some level or another high school screwups. (Self included, in totally different ways than your kid but still.) Start the process of working on things like study skills and stuff now to be ready for college, but I wouldn't worry too much about the social stuff except to reassure that while some stuff doesn't change after high school... a lot of stuff does.
posted by gracedissolved at 1:08 PM on June 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

Having NLD myself and just having graduated highschool I can comprehend some of your worry. I was diagnosed when I was 8 years old (officially under the diagnosis of dyscalcula since apparently the local school system doesn't recognize NLD)
The difficult things: You WILL struggle, constantly. In my experience it is a constant uphill battle to gain the social skills and to get your work done, but it is possible. I worked my ass off and failed a lot of classes. It can be incredibly goddamn depressing, but here's the thing.
It's highschool, and ergo does not matter in the long run what they think. It CAN and WILL, however, effect getting into college if you just give up or say fuck it.
Some advice I'd offer: Working in dead silence, I found, didn't work. Play music, have a conversation....but dead silent in a room with nothing but your work with no breaks can make it more difficult. But from what this post says, your grades are average to above average! (bravo!)
Sports are something that are hella fun! It's a shame his team are like that, but find something athletic outside of school can sometimes be useful. Again, in my own experience, martial arts was a helping hand. (but look around if looking for a dojo, some places are less useful than another)
When it comes to dealing with the depression that NLD can bring on and the stress...
We all have our demons. Some deal with them on their own, some with a therapist, some find coping mechanisms (sports, martial arts, a friend..). A lot of the way I describe NLD to people is if you took bits of Aspergers, ADD, OCD, and dyslexia and mishmoshed them together. It is DAMN hard to deal with. But it doesn't make it impossible, and where you have your strengths, they are going to be incredibly strong.
Try to get into stuff outside of school, look for a niche that aren't people looking to label you as "ew different" or tolerate, but someone you can really truly enjoy the company thereof.
As for an obsession and happily going on his way...I think everyone finds a passion at some point. Or I'd like to believe that.
Hopefully this was at all useful to you guys, Cheers!
PS the driving thing? Driving school tends to be a bit of bullshit, but driving itself is a pretty physical thing. If what you say is true about him being good at sports, it should be an easy thing for him to adapt to. The tests there are just gonna be related to common sense and what you can name.
posted by Sarcasticgrrl at 3:23 PM on June 12, 2011 [8 favorites]

Maloon, I'm sure you know, as you have familiarized yourself with NLD, that low self-esteem and depression are two common hurdles these kids face. NLD is not a definite indicator one way or another of his future success; actually the outlook for NSP, as I understand it, is not bleak--in fact, Aspberger's, though very similar, is generally considered a more limiting diagnosis.

My son had some problems with his own learning disability. One thing that surprised me was that even teachers and coaches, can be idiots when it comes to LD's, so sometimes you and your son will have to educate THEM. Make sure he knows all he can about NLD, and also that it doesn't make him lesser, just different. Lots of people deal with LD's, and many are brighter than their peers simply because they have had to learn coping skills to succeed in an environment that is not conducive to the way they learn.

Some things you and your son can do which can really help him:

Have him learn to type, and get him using a keyboard as much as possible, especially if he plans to continue school into his college years. All of his work should be typed rather than handwritten, as almost illegible handwriting is a hallmark of NLD (and other learning disabilities, too). If his high school doesn't offer keyboarding, there's lots of software out there that can help him learn!

For your son, time management, scheduling and organization pose a unique challenge. I find Apps with reminder alarms are excellent tools. I use iCal myself, on my phone and laptop, to remind me, say, two days ahead of time that I have a doctor's appointment coming up, another the morning of the appointment, and sometimes even a third reminder just a half hour before to remind me it's time to go already! You and his teachers can help by verbally telling him when appointments are coming up, tests are scheduled, assignments are due, etc., and having him set up reminders as soon as he knows about them.

This is great for scheduling 'senior' stuff like graduation pics, the SAT, etc. Which, incidentally, I believe he will have extra time to take, and possibly other accommodation.

I don't understand why your son believes he is a 'joke' on his baseball team, and I think I would privately talk with the coach to make sure he is getting all the instruction he needs, given verbally when possible. And I'd reassure him that if baseball and football don't pan out, he'll find something that will (sounds like he likes weightlifting already, and martial arts, as Sarcasticgrrl mentioned, was an area I thought of, too).

If/when he goes to college, college campuses have a LOT of resources these days! I just took orientation for a state university, and in addition to free tutoring, they offer counseling services (also free), mentoring programs, software tutorials, on-campus living communities for various majors that offer smaller classes and curriculum geared just to the group, even a special service that monitors 'at risk' students for depression.

Hang in there! It's a tough job, parenting, and I think most of us have those moments when we feel like we got thrown into the deep end and have just been floundering to keep afloat ever since. Worrying about our kids and second-guessing our decisions is pretty much the default state. But your son sounds like a great kid, and you sure seem like you've been doing all the right things so far!
posted by misha at 4:48 PM on June 12, 2011 [3 favorites]

I just wanted to say that I don't have any learning disabilities or social skills disorders, and my high school social life didn't really come together until my sophomore/junior year. Having a series of vague friend groups that don't ultimately work out is pretty normal when people change as much year to year as they do in high school and college.

I also wanted to second that he might find his niche in a different sport, especially when/if he goes to a college that has a lot of sports. If he's fairly athletic, picking up a new sport is a great way to find a social group in college. Sports like crew (rowing) and ultimate frisby and rugby and fencing tend to be open to walk-ons with little to no previous experience because they're rareish at the high school level. Big schools often have intramural leagues that are pretty casual and open to people who are enthusiastic regardless of their skill level.
posted by MadamM at 7:22 PM on June 12, 2011

Thank you all for such thoughtful helpful answers. I am getting so much out of every single one, so I don't think I can mark best answer yet. Also, those who have mailed me, I am extremely touched and uplifted by your care and camaraderie and I look forward to getting back to you in the days ahead.
posted by maloon at 7:53 PM on June 12, 2011

Your son sounds like a good kid and I am quite sure that I have no useful advice for you. But please do remember that if he is not yet 16 his brain is still growing and changing. He may be as tall as an adult but he will be maturing for a while yet, and as that happens he will undoubtedly gain new mental and emotional skills.
posted by bq at 10:51 PM on June 12, 2011

Seeing another person a few years ahead doing well will be an enormous comfort to you so do see if you can try to get in touch with a support group. I had been feeling very similar to you about my Asperger's son until I spoke to a nephew who had identical problems at 12-14 with schooling and was now passionately describing saving to do a Masters he's really into.
At each hurdle in my son's present schooling, I replay that conversation with my nephew in my head. It really helps me.
posted by Wilder at 2:37 AM on June 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

I have no direct experience with NLD, but as I have one learning disability and grew up in a household rife with others, I have some general advice: remember that most weaknesses are an imbalance of strengths. Your son may not be able to do some things as well as most people, but he can do other things better. For your peace of mind and his self esteem, encourage him (as I'm sure you already are) to find and pursue the things he's good at and enjoys. It's a cliche, but it's true that everyone is good at something, and I find people with a disability in one area tend to have compensations in other areas.

And nthing support group/networks for you and mentoring for him.
posted by sarahkeebs at 5:24 AM on June 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

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