What makes ADHD, Nonverbal Learning Disorder, and Autism Spectrum Disorder Brains Different

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Life can be a struggle for just about all of us at times. We all have our strengths and weaknesses; there are certain skills, like athletic ability, or an innate understanding of mechanical workings, that come effortlessly to some, and yet are painfully difficult for others. Those born with these advantages may take for granted how frustrating it is for people without them to try and succeed in these areas.

Children and adolescents with serious executive functioning deficits, Nonverbal Learning Disorder (NLD), or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) struggle with certain skills, such as understanding the changing environment, picking up on nonverbal social cues, understanding different perspectives, and staying focused on the task at hand in a world that is increasingly full of distractions. This blog post will discuss what makes these brains different and will also take a deeper look into each of these learning disorders.

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

ADHD is characterized by an inability to focus, overactive behavior, difficulty paying attention, and a lack of self-control. This often leads to academic struggles and strained family and peer relationships.

In most cases, treatment will include some combination of therapy, medication, parent training, and a classroom accommodations. Individuals with ADHD respond well to structure, rewards, and a simplified lifestyle with fewer choices and distractions.

Nonverbal Learning Disorder

Individuals with Nonverbal Learning Disorder are extremely verbal; they tend to be bright and articulate. They have difficulty when it comes to interpreting any information that is non-verbal, especially non-verbal social information. These students tend be very literal and have poor executive functioning abilities.

Because Nonverbal Learning Disorder can affect a child’s academic and social development, treatment can include a mix of occupational therapy, behavioral interventions, and social skills training. Medication may be helpful in treating the “symptoms” that co-occur with NLD, like inattention, moodiness and anxiety, but it does not address the core of the disorder.

Autism Spectrum Disorder

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) leads to many specific academic, adaptive and social problems, but for high-functioning individuals with ASD, the main impediment is difficulty taking other perspectives. Often referred to as a deficit in “theory of mind,” these students have problems connecting with their family members and peers because they do not easily understand how others are different, unique or have something important to offer.  Another term that captures this deficit was coined by speech language pathologist, Michelle Garcia Winner. She called these students Impaired Perspective Takers. Michelle explains that though these students are generally quite strong verbally, they still have difficulty adjusting their own behavior based on what other people might be thinking.

Treatment for Autism Spectrum Disorder varies depending on an individual’s needs and what therapies they are most responsive to. There is no medication that directly treats the symptoms of Autism Spectrum Disorder; however, Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) is effective for people with more significant levels of impairment. ABA works by forming connections between a stimulus and a desired behavior; it can be effective in building basic academic, communication, and social skills.

For students who are higher functioning, there are a number of emerging approaches to help them appreciate human differences and understand the complexity of the social world. Some of these involve turning the student into an investigator to develop a better understanding of what they’re missing and then providing concrete examples or templates of how to engage in certain social behaviors. Many of these students have never experienced clear social “successes” and, when they finally discover that they can improve their interactions with other people, find it incredibly motivating and transformative.


The therapeutic community has put a great deal of energy into finding ways to help these students gain an equal footing. Pharmaceutical companies have developed medications that can reduce anxiety and improve focus. Many schools have programs with modified curriculums to accommodate these differences, and federal law mandates that schools seek out students with learning disabilities and work actively to make education accessible for them. While every child and adolescent is unique, there is some overlap in the symptoms and in the interventions between Autism Spectrum Disorder, ADHD, and Nonverbal Learning Disorder.

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About Vantage Point by Aspiro

Vantage Point is a specialized offshoot of Aspiro Adventure, the program that pioneered wilderness adventure therapy. Vantage Point focuses on helping students with executive function disorders, Autism Spectrum Disorders, and Nonverbal Learning Disorders, among others.

The Vantage Point programs are designed to build self-efficacy in our students through overwhelming mastery experiences – our students accomplish goals they never believed possible, which creates a belief that they are capable of changing their own lives for the better. We focus specifically on social dynamics and social skills to help our students connect with others and feel like they can be a part of the world. Experiential Learning is a tenet of our philosophy and our program. Paired with ongoing individual therapy and targeting specific areas for growth, our wilderness therapy programs are proven successful by outcome studies and are overseen by experienced Field Guides and clinical professionals