When your brain relies upon words as if they were a source of oxygen, it is particularly disconcerting when you cannot explain something. The discomfiture rises to the next level when that “something” tangibly influences your personality, social interactions, manner of processing, self-regulatory abilities, and morale. Yet, this robust but enigmatic “force” is invisible to others, and it often seems as if their quizzical expressions and exasperation offer the only evidence of their perception of its existence. Eager to connect, you return their expressions with a wistful smile, but must now painfully accept the reality that your objective has shifted from maintaining reciprocity to averting disaster. You channel all of your energy into repairing the communication breakdowns and dodging bullets, but are seized by the apprehension that any explanation would engender further confusion and nebulousness. You, therefore, endeavor to dismiss it and promptly move forward, but the vicious cycle has already begun. The more effort you exert to conceal these deficits, the tighter the chains become, the greater the anxiety and isolation, and the more you feel compelled to escape.
Nonverbal learning disability is not an illusion, a cop out, an evanescent or petty annoyance. It is not a phase that you grow out of by the end of adolescence. It is a real lifelong neurological condition. The preceding description captures the essence of my recent experience at a weekend workshop. I had flown out of state (and had paid for the flights, accommodations, and workshop) in order to obtain instruction and hands-on practice with techniques for enhancing the swallowing function of patients. I have endeavored to transition from the educational setting of speech-language pathology to the medical arena for years, but my desired position is in high demand, and my current setting in a high school does not offer the background and cultivation in the skills that would typically appeal to employers of outpatient rehabilitation settings. In order to increase my chances of landing interviews, I have been devoting more time, money, and energy than usual to take advantage of continuing education opportunities. I anticipated that the hands-on aspects of this particular workshop would prove to be quite arduous, but I did not surmise that every single one of my attempts would be enshrouded in an embarrassing struggle. Because it appeared as if we would work with the same lab partner all weekend, I deemed it necessary to provide the benevolent therapist with whom I had paired up with a disclaimer that I am not “natural” when it comes to practically anything that is nonverbal and that I may be a burden to her. However, I was determined to “blend in,” remain positive, and circumvent initiating the interaction and potential acquaintanceship on an awkward note. Like the other attendees, I essayed to employ each the massage-like techniques on my lab partner, palpating different facial and pharyngeal structures after the instructor had demonstrated one or two at a time. The written instructions were there, but I quickly realized that I couldn’t figure out how to position my fingers on the face, shoulders, or neck (depending upon the exercise); how to move my fingers in a rhythmic manner to relieve tension in the neck; where to rest my hands; and even where to stand. I was lost in space, but I couldn’t articulate this to the lab partner. It looked as if I was not paying attention, was exhibiting indolence, or that I did not care, none of which were true.
I initially attempted to mitigate the trepidation and unspoken communication breakdowns by intermittently paying her compliments for picking up on the exercises so quickly. However, it seemed imperative to explicate why it appeared as if the right hemisphere of my brain was missing. My anxiety kept increasing which, of course, rendered it difficult to formulate any sentences without sounding like a lost little puppy. An all-too familiar conundrum had emerged: She and the instructor deserved an explanation about NVLD and why I needed specific words and deliberate hands-on instruction for everything followed by probably about twenty repetitions of each exercise. I had certainly pondered the possibility of leaving early and just counting it as a loss, but that would not speak to quizzical expressions or mollify my lab partner’s frustration. I reached a point to where I could barely say anything and felt as if I had enacted the survival mode of “just getting through” and was no longer concerned about learning or retaining any degree of self-esteem.
It is very disconcerting that this experience has only validated my fear that I have not yet surmounted some of the obstacles of NVLD. It also underscores the importance of developing a “script” for explaining deficits and brainstorming any compensatory strategies before embarking upon trainings that will require hands-on adeptness. Although the trials of NVLD can certainly inconvenience, befuddle, and frustrate others, we can embrace the courage to acknowledge our weaknesses with the incentive of educating and empowering others to be more receptive of and empathetic to others’ challenges. We all have much to offer each other in our journey to inspire others to become the best version of themselves as we each endeavor to reach our full potential and fulfill our unique mission in this life.
Hi! As a speech-language pathologist, I am committed to empower others to reach their communication potential. I assist with the middle school youth ministry of my parish, volunteer with handling reptiles at a science center, and own a blue-tongued skink named “Professor Lexicon.” (-: I have a fiery passion for words, religious liberty, and the sanctity of life.Share your own story