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What is non-verbal learning disorder? Chris Rock's diagnosis, learning disabilities, and symptoms explained

Chris Rock's learning disorder garnered renewed attention post-2022 Oscars (Image via Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
Chris Rock's learning disorder garnered renewed attention post-2022 Oscars (Image via Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
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Barsha Roy

Chris Rock has continued to make news since Will Smith slapped him during the 2022 Oscars ceremony after he made a G.I. Jane joke about Jada Pinkett Smith’s shaved head. In the wake of the Oscars controversy, the comedian’s non-verbal learning disorder diagnosis has garnered renewed attention.

Emmy award-winning legal correspondent Amy Dash was among the many public figures who shared Rock’s diagnosis on social media with the aim of spreading awareness about the condition in light of recent events:

Great time for @chrisrock to draw attention to his Non-verbal learning disorder diagnosis & its impact on his social interactions. Could help a lot of people who may not otherwise realize they or someone they know has NLD. Look it up!
Chris Rock has #NVLD non-verbal learning disorder, they have trouble reading emotion in facial cues and body language, so they often don’t know what’s going on in social interactions. Notice Rock smiled while Smith approached him, smiled until his face was impacted. Literally.

According to Newsweek, online searches for non-verbal learning disorder (NVLD) have witnessed a sharp rise since Will Smith and Chris Rock's slapping incident at the Oscars, with peak interest being reported on March 31.


Understanding the meaning of non-verbal learning disorder

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Non-verbal learning disorder (NVLD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that results in poor visual, spatial, organizational, and motor skills, causing difficulty in recognizing and processing nonverbal cues.

ADDitude (Inside the ADHD Mind) defines NVLD as:

“The most overlooked, misunderstood, and under-diagnosed learning disability.”

People with NVLD face difficulties in understanding nonverbal forms of communication like body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice. As a result, they mostly rely on verbal communication. The condition often results in an inability to understand and connect with close acquaintances, like parents, partners, peers, and spouses, among others.

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Reports suggest that NVLD is not defined as a separate condition in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Volume 5 (DSM-V), and its symptoms often vary from person to person.

Some of the most common symptoms include difficulty in recognizing nonverbal, poor coordination, motor skills, and acquiring early speech and language.

Other symptoms include the need to ask excessive questions and verbally “label” information, difficulty in understanding unsaid or spatial information, difficulty in following multi-step directions, and trouble in making generalizations, among others.

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According to a 2020 study conducted by the American Medical Association's JAMA Network Open, nearly one in 25 children and adolescents in the U.S. and Canada may have NVLD.

The study also mentioned that between 2.2 million and 2.9 million U.S. children under the age of 18 could have NVLD. The sample findings also noted that nearly 7-50% of people with NVLD had received “no psychiatric diagnosis.”


A look into Chris Rock’s journey with NVLD

Chris Rock previously shared that proper diagnosis has helped his NVLD condition (Image via Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
Chris Rock previously shared that proper diagnosis has helped his NVLD condition (Image via Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

Chris Rock opened up about his diagnosis during a 2019 interview with Extra. He said that he was diagnosed with the condition after a friend told him he might have Asperger's Syndrome:

“A friend of mine told me I may have Asperger’s… So I got it checked. It turned out I had something that was a lot like Asperger’s.”

Speaking on his symptoms prior to his diagnosis, the comedian said that he often struggled with nonverbal cues, which ended up affecting his personal relationships:

“I kinda have a hard time with non-verbal cues with people. I always have. My relationships — even with my family, women I dated — it was always something a little off. I didn't know I did, but I'm great with words. I can hear, but most communication—they say that 70 percent of all communication is non-verbal.”
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Rock reportedly underwent nine hours of cognitive testing to receive his diagnosis. However, he said that being diagnosed has helped him deal with his condition in a better way:

“Being diagnosed with it has put me in a position [where] I have doctors, I got certain medicines and stuff that help me deal with it. Everything is easier once you’re diagnosed.”

The following year, Chris Rock told The Hollywood Reporter that his condition has often placed him in uncomfortable situations for making him take things “too literally” and for having difficulties maintaining one-on-one relationships.

The Everybody Hates Chris host also said that he previously ignored the issue as a byproduct of fame but realized the key problem following his diagnosis:

“And I'd always just chalked it up to being famous. Any time someone would respond to me in a negative way, I'd think, 'Whatever, they're responding to something that has to do with who they think I am.' Now, I'm realizing it was me. A lot of it was me.”
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Chris Rock also shared that he previously thought he was dealing with the condition but never truly acknowledged his struggles prior to his diagnosis and treatment:

“I thought I was actually dealing with it, and the reality is I never dealt with it. The reality was the pain and the fear that that brought me, I was experiencing it every day.”

Alongside his medication, Chris Rock also sees two therapists and undergoes nearly seven hours of therapy sessions every week, both in group and individually. The comedian says that through therapy, he gets to talk to people about his problems and also learns about how others struggle.

He said that the exchange has made him realize that he is not alone and that talking to people can make “everything better.”


Edited by Rhythm Bhatia
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