With the 2023 Oscar’s approaching, we come up on a year since the infamous slap that Chris Rock received from Will Smith, after Rock had made a joke about Will’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith. Whatever stance you have—whether you think the joke was insensitive or the slap was totally uncalled for, or even a little of both—you can’t help but think about Rock’s social condition that could have had some impact on his decision to tell that joke.
In 2020, Rock opened up to The Hollywood Reporter about being diagnosed with a non-verbal learning disorder, or NVLD. Dr. David Dinklage, founder of Dinklage Associates (a “neuropsychological assessment and consultation service for children and adults”) described what NVLD is to Health.com.
“In my opinion, it is more useful to think of the problem for someone with NVLD as the imbalance in thinking skills where they over-attend to detail and often miss the gestalt or big picture, rather than solely visual-spatial problems.”
As Rock explains how he perceives his disorder, “All I understand are the words,” rather than comprehending non-verbal signals and communication, including body language and voice inflection.
“By the way, all of those things are really great for writing jokes — they’re just not great for one-on-one relationships,” he said of the disorder. “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.”
Rock was introduced to the idea that something was cognitively wrong with him after his friend suggested that he may have Asperger’s syndrome. After nine hours of cognitive tests, doctors were able to diagnose Rock with NVLD at 55 years old.
“I think it is often undiagnosed and the child is viewed as just an oddball, or quirky and clumsy,” Dr. Dinklage said. “The ubiquity of video game playing—especially with boys—can help hide the social problems. I think that the missed cases are often never diagnosed.”
Common signs of NVLD include, “Poor coordination, messy handwriting, taking things too literally, trouble reading social cues, lack of common sense, as well as difficulty with word problems in math and reading comprehension,” according to Dr. Sean Paul, a Florida-based psychiatrist. But oftentimes, it gets dismissed as a personality trait rather than a disorder, as is evident based on the symptoms.
It is difficult to say how many children/adults are struggling with NVLD because of it’s commonly overlooked symptoms, but researchers estimate that in the US, “2.2 million to 2.9 million children and adolescents have NVLD,” which amounts to “3% to 4% of under-18-year-olds,” according to the Psychiatry journal that was published in April 2020.
The study also found that common challenges that are seen within people with NVLD include: math, fine motor skills, visual and spatial reasoning, identifying patterns, and social communication, per PsychCentral.
In 2020, Rock was attending seven hours of therapy a week. He said that therapy had played a major role in him recognizing and dealing with NVLD.
“I thought I was actually dealing with it,” he added, “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.”
In childhood, group social skills and practices help with NVLD, while in adulthood, therapy is the most effective method of treatment.