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What is Non-Verbal Learning Disability? Family shares their experience

An estimated 3 million children and adolescents living in North America meet criteria for Non-Verbal Learning Disability.
/ Source: TODAY

At age 4, Teddy Halpin could name all the United States presidents in order.

"He could give you every football and baseball players’ stat, even the most obscure ones, you know, he knew it all," mother Becca Halpin told TODAY's Dylan Dreyer. "He was just this happy, outgoing, no care in the world child."

Halpin said that around first or second grade, "the wheels started to fall off" and Teddy became angry and frustrated.

"School became a place where he was really just feeling like a failure," she said.

Halpin said seeing her son go from happy-go-lucky to frustrated and anxious "was incredibly hard to watch."

With the help of a special education director in Maine, Teddy was diagnosed with Non-Verbal Learning Disability, or NVLD.

"The diagnosis helped us so much because everything made sense then," Halpin told TODAY. “He checked so many of the boxes and so many behaviors that he displayed, we just could never understand. And because they have these just incredible strengths and then these sort of real challenges, it was hard to reconcile the two."

According to The Non-Verbal Learning Disability Project — a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating awareness and building support for people with Non-Verbal Learning Disability — someone with NVLD may struggle with social and spatial disabilities. This might look like struggling to understand humor or putting together a puzzle.

Someone with NVLD might have difficulty using time wisely, reading comprehension, fine motor skills (like using scissors or a pencil grip), and gross motor skills (like throwing a ball or riding a bike).

Halpin said that after Teddy was diagnosed, life changed.

"So many times we would just be like, 'You know, Teddy, why can’t you do this? Just get on the bike and ride the bike and, you know, follow directions and you know, look both ways before you cross the street.' 

"And then when you look at it through the lens of NVLD — he has really very little awareness of where he is in space."

In the days and weeks following Teddy's diagnosis, Halpin tried to find as much information as she could on NVLD. It was through her research that she found Laura Lemle of "The NVLD Project."

Lemle was inspired to start the nonprofit after her daughter, Ariel Miller, was diagnosed at age 5. Now an adult, Miller hopes her experience serves as an example for others.

"What NVLD does is it gives you slow processing. Things don't come as fast to you," Miller told TODAY. "I still have trouble making friends, but I’m much better at it."

Miller said directions and finding places are still her biggest struggle.

Teddy and Ariel are not alone.

"Roughly 3 million children and adolescents living in North America meet criteria for Non-Verbal Learning Disability," Amy Margolis, associate professor of medical psychology in psychiatry at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, told TODAY.

After more than a decade of research, Margolis is working with the project to get NVLD officially listed in the diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, which will help give doctors information to accurately diagnose the condition.

"The sooner we can identify these problems, the better outcome they’re going to have," Margolis said.

Teddy, now 13, continues work with his occupational therapist and appointments with his psychologist. One day, he dreams of being a professional golfer.

"One thing that we have always told Teddy over and over again is that everybody is struggling with something," Halpin said. "Whether they want to admit it or talk about it."