Growing Up With Non-Verbal Learning Disorder -The Toast

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Born_bronze_-_Bronze_castsThe world is a confusing place for children. At least, I assume–I don’t know how all the children in the world view their circumstances, but I know it confused the hell out of me. There were too many rules, which would have made sense if they’d been related to anything I could understand as being important. You can’t talk about any given subject for more than ten minutes, tops. You have to watch other people for their reactions; if they look bored (which was a value I didn’t quite grasp) you need to stop doing what you’re doing. You have to take math even though it’s confusing and frustrating and makes your head hurt. You can’t sit by yourself on the playground and read books, even though your teachers are always telling the class that reading is important. Some of these strictures, I understand now: hard or not, I needed to know how to do simple arithmetic. And I understand why my parents and teachers were concerned about my reading instead of socializing, even though I vastly preferred reading. I even understand the rules of socialization, even though I need to constantly keep them in mind when I’m talking to someone. I just wish I’d known then what I know now.


Having my clothes laid out for me was always a sign that we were going somewhere. Most days, when I was growing up, my mother would allow me to pick me own clothes; she’d sigh when she saw what I picked, but she let me wear it. And since I wore a uniform to school, she didn’t need to worry about my embarassing her in front of my teachers by showing up in tie-dyed sweatpants. But when we had an appointment or were visiting extended family (usually the latter) she would lay clothes out for me. So when I woke up one Saturday morning when I was eight, I knew even before she told me that we were going somewhere. We were going, she explained, to see a doctor in Oakville. I didn’t know why we were seeing a doctor in Oakville, since my regular doctor was right there in Hamilton, but I didn’t really care either way.

The doctor’s office was much fancier than my doctor at home: wall-to-wall carpet and nice leather chairs. When I was ushered in to see the doctor, her office looked more like a classroom than a proper doctor’s office; where were the needles and stethescopes? The tests she had me undergo, too, felt much more like schoolwork than anything medical. I was asked to write a short story in under ten minutes; when I failed to finish it in the alotted time, she asked me to describe how it would have ended. I was asked to create shapes with a set of hexagonal wood pieces, and to put a series of pictures in chronological order. There were math problems. I was given a questionnaire to fill out, evaluating my feelings towards my family, my school, and my classmates, and how I thought they felt about me. In the final evaluation put together by the doctor, “family acceptance” got a 25; “peer acceptance” got 5. Ater the doctor was done testing me, she spoke to my parents while I played in the waiting room. I remember there was a big fuzzy bird puppet, the kind that’s suspended on strings; I wanted one for myself.

The evaluation came in the mail several weeks later. I didn’t see it; I don’t think I even knew it had arrived. Nor do I know what I would have thought if I had known; I still didn’t realize what the appointment had been about. Like the confusing, seemingly useless rules, I had spent much of my educational career being shuffled from resource room to tutor without any seeming rhyme or reason; I just accepted the doctor’s appointment as one more in a long line of odd things my parents and teachers made me do. So I didn’t know at the time what was in that evaluation. My mother did. After spending several pages describing the strengths and weaknesses the doctor had observed, she gave her diagnosis: non-verbal learning disorder.

NVLD is a disorder that convers a very broad range of symptoms. Often it’s grouped in with Asperger’s, but it’s milder. Still, it shares a lot of characteristics with ASD; poor socialization, lack of understanding of non-verbal communication, poor math and spatial skills, inability to manage time or organize properly. These days, if my diagnosis comes up in conversation, I usually shorten it to “Asperger’s” as it’s far more likely the listener will have heard of that, and can make sense of it. But I didn’t tell anyone at the time. I didn’t tell them, because I didn’t know.

My mother had a decision to make when she saw that diagnosis: what was she going to tell me? She already knew I had low self-esteem when it came to schoolwork and socialization. I was frequently anxious and high-strung; homework was a pitched battle every night where I screamed and sobbed and dropped my pencils and pleaded an upset stomach and did anything I could think of to keep from doing my math problems. I thought school was a form of torture. What, she wondered, would I think if she told me I had a learning disorder? How would I react? Would it make anything better?

It’s impossible to know at this distance; I don’t have a window into my eight-year-old mind. Maybe my mother made the best of a bad situation. But what I do know is this: the words “learning disorder” were not spoken in our house. I was not told of the contents of the doctor’s reports. Instead, my mother told me that I was better at some things than others- better at reading than math, better at history than science, better at storytelling than socializing- and as a result, I’d just have to work harder in some areas. So, no change.

Did she think I didn’t realize? No, I didn’t know I had NVLD. But I knew damn well I was different. I felt like a clock that was ticking out of time; something was just off about me, something that my classmates could scent with a child’s natural impulse to torment the different. Often when I pictured myself as a child, I thought of myself as jello-o that my parents and teachers were trying to force to stand up straight; I kept sliding down, no matter how hard they tried. I was limp and useless. I didn’t fit.


“Hey, let’s see how long Laura can go without talking!”

Special interests were a big thing for me; almost always they were TV shows. Narratives made sense to me. They helped me make sense to myself. First it was Relic Hunter (every afternoon at four on channel seven) then Beastmaster (Sunday mornings at ten; my motivation to get up earlier than I might have otherwise) then Law and Order (one o’clock on Bravo; I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was nursing my first baby bisexual crush on Jill Hennessey) and then The X-Files (eleven o’clock; more than once I got caught sneaking down to the basement to watch it.) I also went to camp every summer; an idea of my parents’, hoping that it would help me develop my lacking social skills. Instead, I became known at the girl who talked. I still do have special interests, although I have a better handle on them; ask me about The Killing and I can go for hours. Now I know that I can only discuss a single subject for so long before my conversational partner gets bored and wanders away. But at the time, I didn’t know what else to do, how else I was supposed to relate to people. So I talked their ears off, recounting plots, describing characters, repeating favourite lines until they begged me to just be quiet. I think it was one of my camp counsellors who suggested the “no talking” bet; as I recall, I lasted ten minutes. Camp was not the success my parents had hoped for.

School wasn’t much better, although I did develop some tricks that helped me get by. Volunteering in the library, for instance; the soothing repetition of stamping in new books gave me something to do in my empty lunch hour, when I didn’t have any friends to occupy my time. Teachers tended to like me, if I liked their subjects; if you’re trying to interest students in something and you’ve got a girl in your class who will happily prattle about narrative theory for hours, that can only be seen as a good thing. After I was done with the torture of math, science, and gym (I got a 50 on my Phys Ed report card in ninth grade; I think the coach just wanted to get rid of me) I settled contentedly into a stream of English, History, and Drama classes. My classmates were either spiteful or indifferent towards me; more than once my mother pulled me out of school because I was being threatened and all the principal could do was wring his hands over it. I had bottle caps flipped at my head, was tossed down the stairs, was described as “a loser who had no friends” but by this point, I had learned to bite back. Who cared what they thought? They weren’t the teacher’s pet. They hadn’t read Dickens. Who needed friends when you were smart? Not me. I was lying to myself, and on some level I knew it, but it was all I had. I dressed in baggy sweaters and jeans and refused to wear pink because what was I, some kind of conformist? I wore the badge of my oddness on my sleeve and refused to listen to my mother’s pleas that I try harder to fit in. Why should I try to fit in with them? Fuck my classmates; they hated me, and I returned the favour.

The only time I genuinely felt the need to conform was when I signed up for the local youth theatre. Footloose (I know; irony, right?) offered me the chance to make friends who were from other schools and hadn’t seen me spit on the social hierarchy. I also developed a crush on one of my castmates, who, while he thought I was odd as everyone else did, was at least somewhat kind to me. More than once, though, my friends grew frustrated and asked why I couldn’t just be normal. Why did I talk so much? Why did I laugh so loud? Why was I all elbows and knees and bad at dancing? This hurt more than the previous rejections; I wanted these people to like me. In my journal, I described myself as “a stupid little puppy trailing after [them.]” I’d also been doing some research. I’d discovered the concept of Asperger’s almost by accident: one of my classmates had it, and he and I seemed to share the same difficulties, although he struggled more than I did. In the car, riding home after rehearsal ended, I asked my mom if I could be tested for ASD; I wanted to know what was wrong with me.

“You don’t have Asperger’s,” she said. “You have non-verbal learning disorder. We got you tested when you were eight. Don’t you remember?”

My world was rocked. On the heels of shock and relief–finally, I knew what made me so despicably different–came anger. How could she have kept this from me? Didn’t she understand what it had been to know I was wrong and not understand why? Self-hatred warred with resentment and loneliness. I wanted friends. I wanted to be normal. But I didn’t want to change myself for other people. No matter what I did, it seemed, I was doomed. But at least I had some kind of shield now. When my friends asked me what was wrong with me, I had an answer: “I have NVLD.” A doctor’s stamp explained what was wrong with me, and it offered relief and hopelessness in equal measure. I had an excuse. I had a label.

It’s hard to bring this story to an end, because honestly, I don’t know if it has one. I graduated with honours and went away to university. I spent most of my first two years huddling in my room, unsure of how to go out and make friends. Gradually, I emerged, with the help of the campus chaplain and the Drama department. Acting has always been the greatest escape for me; I can’t quantify why. Maybe it’s because it allows me to disappear, become someone else, mold myself into the person I ought to be. Or maybe it’s because theatre majors are, as a rule, odd people; there’s more acceptance for the offbeat onstage. I also re-discovered the joys of being the teacher’s pet; every time one of my professors singled me out with “I know you have something to say about this,” I glowed with pride. If I didn’t fit, at least I stood out in a way that worked, that people liked. My classmates no longer looked on me with revulsion; I was still the girl who talked, but I was also the girl who poured forth endless information about the aesthetic movement, gender and sexuality in Elizabethan England, and the history of the horror movie. I’m months away from graduation, and while I’m proud that I proved my eighth-grade science teacher wrong when she said I would never go to university, I also look on the future with dread. Where will I go? What will I do?

It’s been seven years since my mother finally disclosed my diagnosis. When she first told me, I used it as an explanation: “I’m sorry I’m so weird, but it’s not my fault; I have a disorder.” Now I use it as a badge of honour: “Yeah, I have NVLD. And I’m about to have a university degree. And I’m a writer. What else?” I haven’t found my way yet, but maybe I’ve found something better- a new mold, something I fit into because I made it for myself. If I ever go to a high school reunion, I probably won’t be wearing sweaters and baggy jeans- I discovered the joys of sundresses a few years ago, once I outgrew the idea of clothes as defiance. But if any of my old classmates identifies me, again as the friendless, talkative, loser, all I’ll do is smile. Like I said, I can still talk your ear off. I still can’t dance. I can still recite episodes of TV from memory. But there’s a key difference separating me from the girl I was at sixteen. I share her fears, her disabilities, and her strengths. But I’m not ashamed of them anymore. Not of any of them.

Laura McVey is an author and playwright currently living in Toronto. You can find her on Twitter or Tumblr.

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