As a practicing child clinical psychologist, one of the most common concerns I hear from parents is, “My child has trouble processing.” I suspect they are referring to the speed at which their children take in information, process it, and produce a result. They describe a child processing visual information slowly, always a step behind in verbal exchanges or slow to physically reacting?
Parents who bring their children to me for a comprehensive neuropsychological evaluation often recognize the areas in which their children are having trouble with slow processing speed. This is one of the main issues that I attempt to clarify when I meet with them so that we can explore their concerns with selected neuropsychological tests. A comprehensive home and school history usually helps to identify where the most prominent signs of slow processing occur.
In general, slow processing speed is believed to be a result of variations in brain functioning and how information flows across different circuits of the brain. Slow processing speed is often seen in children with psychiatric diagnosis, most commonly Learning Disabilities and ADHD, but is also evident in Autism Spectrum Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and depression. However, there are many other factors that influence slow processing speed in children, including lack of sleep, poor nutrition, perfectionism, anxiety, inattention, motivation and persistence, poor graphomotor skills, difficulty with fine- and gross-motor skills, visual problems, executive dysfunctions (including working memory and task initiation), and physical illnesses.
The impact that slow processing speed has on these children can be great. Slow processing speed can impact the completion of complex tasks and academic skills, but we measure it with simple tasks that assess how quickly individuals process information automatically, quickly, and efficiently. We typically notice slow processing speed in task performance rather than in learning something new.
There are four types of processing speed: visual, auditory, verbal, and motor. Most often, slow processing speed is initially identified by children’s diminished output in areas such as identifying things, talking, writing, or completing tasks.
Visual and auditory processing generally refer to the input and interpretation of stimuli, in other words, how efficiently children are able to process and understand what they see or hear. Verbal and motor processing typically refer to output of a behavior or a response, in other words, how efficiently children are able to speak and communicate or write and physically complete a task. Often these domains are used together. For example, children who are taking notes may need to look at the blackboard (visual), listen to the teacher (auditory), repeat to themselves what they have heard (verbal), and write their notes notes (motor). Slow or inefficient processing can occur in any or all of these domains.
Slow visual processing is often seen in children who read slowly. They may be slow at visual scanning skills, and it may take them longer to interpret what they see. They might also demonstrate slow reaction time to visual stimuli, such as what is often seen in children with ADHD on visual continuous performance tests.
Slow auditory processing speed is often noticed in children who pause as if they need additional time to consider what one has said to them. These children may ask for directions and statements to be repeated. Children who have difficulty with auditory processing are typically able to hear effectively but their brains do not interpret or processes information efficiently, resulting in confusion, difficulty in following directions, and problems in interpreting their world.
Slow verbal processing can usually be observed in the halting speech of people who seem to be searching for what to say or struggle to put their thoughts in order. Verbal expression seems to be a bit slow and cumbersome.
Slow motor speed may be observed in children who take a long time to complete tasks at home and school. While homework may be the most common situation in which slow motor speed (and often slow or illegible handwriting) is displayed, many other tasks involving writing and movement can also be problematic.
Once the type or types of slow processing speed have been identified, parents and educators can begin to help these children. Communicating these findings to the children and developing appropriate accommodations would be the first steps. At that point, examining effective interventions that might improve processing speed becomes possible.
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