Boston and New York AET Study Groups: Collaboration on NLD Clients

On April 26, 2009, Laurie Fox, Joan Manchester, and Deb Fencer traveled from Boston to NYC to meet and work with the NYC study group of AET. The subject of the day was “getting to know you,” and we relished the chance to put our heads together to discuss nonverbal learning disabilities (NLD) and how to treat our clients who have one of the many variations of this disorder. Curiosity ran high among the NYC group as the day approached. The meeting was well attended enough to have to borrow chairs from the waiting room of Susan Micari’s office suite so that there would be seating for all.

Susan Micari, Pamela Feiring, Evan Flamenbaum, Laura Doto, Susan Stein, and our guest Diana Abramo welcomed our Boston friends around 1 PM, and at 3, our usual end time, the hallways and lobby were still lively with discussion on the issue of the day, nonverbal learning disabilities. Our colleague and friend from Long Island, Jackie Levine, was unable to attend and was sorely missed. Laurie Fox brought a favorite volume with her, The Source for Non-verbal Learning Disabilities, published by LinguiSystems in 1997, while Deb Fencer and Susan Micari each brought a copy of Joseph Palumbo’s Non-Verbal Learning Disabilities (Norton, 2006), a great resource for the diagnostic variations of this disorder. High on our list of thoughts to share were the patterns and variations of cognitive differences our NLD students have, and how they differ from the typical Asperger’s diagnosis.

Evan Flamenbaum, an educational therapist and clinical social worker from New York, spoke eloquently of the need to diagnose not from a checklist of behaviors, but from an in-depth examination of family dynamics. He noted that several children he has worked with may have developed symptoms that look like NLD from having parents who had personality disorders, and he commented that we should always look at the totality of the family to see whether some of our students’ issues might be reactive in nature. We are all mindful that treatment of the client includes education and advocacy of and for the families of our students. I recalled the father of one of my NLD students, who wanted me to “fix” his son, warning me, “It’s A’s and B’s or nothing! It’s Harvard or nothing!” Interestingly, the display case in the family dining room was filled with toy Greek, Roman, and Civil War soldiers, and though my student was an aficionado of war and its tactics, the display case belonged to Dad!

In the field, we have all observed that NLD students want desperately to connect socially, but that their visual-spatial processing difficulties make that connection difficult with peers in the bustling confines of the classroom and playground. Though some of our NLD students connect well with adults, and especially in middle school they are capable of succeeding very well academically, we all noted that when the demand for more analytic thinking and novel problem-solving tasks increases in upper middle school, our students may become overwhelmed, and anxious, and a smaller subgroup can react to these challenges with a flight/fight response that increases their isolation. I recounted a typical complaint from my NLD high school student: “Why do I have to read Streetcar? If they want me to understand Stanley, why can’t I just read a psychological abstract?”

Deb Fencer noted that Asperger’s syndrome students seem to have less anguish over not connecting with peers, and she thinks it is because they can have stronger cognitive strengths in the non-verbal domain, though they may have the same difficulties with critical thinking about literature. The rote memory strengths of NLD children can be a boon to them, but can disguise their deficits in novel problem solving until these children become overwhelmed. Verbal mediation of all sequential and problem-solving tasks is one way to begin to train NLD children in pattern recognition and to begin to help them develop better coping mechanisms to deal with frustration as they tackle the kind of analytic tasks in writing that baffle them.

Thinking of assistive technology for our NLD kids, whose handwriting and fine-motor issues are extreme, Susan Stein brought up the Smart-Pen, a recording device that works with a special pad and a pen that records data as you write down key words from a teacher’s oral presentation. Diana Abramo brought several websites and articles to our attention. During her time at Harvard University in 2009, Diane’s research skills will make a great contribution to our work as ETs. offers a chart that illustrates good distinctions between NLD and Asperger’s syndrome, as did Laurie Fox’s source from LinguiSystems. also has a wonderful article that Diana showed us, entitled, “When Asperger’s and NLD Look Alike” which further teases out the differences between Asperger’s.

Our last meeting in early June will focus on the NYC area that have strengths (hidden or acknowledged in the mission statement) in working with children with learning disabilities. Our guest will be placement expert, Dr. Davida Sherwood, former head of the Gateway School. In June we’ll set the agenda for 2009–2010, which will include hot topics like current research in the treatment of dyslexia and ADHD, as well as further collaboration in pursuing publication of our work with children in educational therapy in New York.

All in all, the meeting was a wonderful chance for practitioners from Boston and New York to discuss cases, issues, and tips to improve our work and to keep us connected to one another. We look forward to visiting Boston next year to reciprocate and extend our working relationship into the future. Thanks to everyone who attended.

Susan Micari is a member of the AET Board of Directors and is a study group leader in New York City, where she also maintains a private practice. She has worked as a learning specialist in indepen- dent schools, and home schooled students with learning disabilities in humanities, comparative religion, art history, and writing. Susan assistant-taught a course in language development at Bank Street College of Education and has authored various articles on teaching family literacy. Her work includes the development of a family literacy program for Women in Need, Inc., a project where she went on to teach at two shelters in NYC and the Bronx.


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