Autism and Slow Processing Speed

Many kids affected by Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) have slow processing speed and are likely to fall behind their peers at school. They may struggle to keep up with basic academic demands and, given the core language feature of ASD, also have difficulty in communicating these concerns to teachers. Autism and slow processing speed can combine to obstruct a child’s social and academic progress.

A prevailing theory about children with autism is that these kids “process” their environment differently and show many variations in their cognitive profiles. One idea is that many kids with autism are able to process only one thing at a time and tend to become overly focused on a single activity or a particular feature of their environment. This can often be seen in the special interests of kids affected by autism, as well as in their attention to unique details or interests that are generally ignored by others. Recent studies suggest that this type of processing results from brain functioning that is slower to integrate information  coming from multiple senses at the same time.

When we talk about processing speed and kids affected by autism, it is important to recognize the full spectrum and diversity of kids who warrant an ASD diagnosis. Primarily, the issue of slow processing speed as a meaningful construct applies only to children we describe as Level 1 ASD. The new diagnostic system used in the DSM-V describes three levels of Autism Spectrum Disorder. Level 3, the most severe, requires “very substantial support.”

Many of these kids are non-communicative and often have a very severe intellectual disability (formerly called mental retardation). Level 2 ASD kids “require substantial support” and are characterized by simple communication, limited interactions, inflexible behavior, and, often, modest cognitive abilities. Level 1 ASD children “require support” and may have difficulty with communication, social relationships, and executive functions. Most Level 1 kids have low average to above average cognitive abilities. However, their cognitive profiles are often atypical.

This is where processing issues with kids affected by autism come into play. Multiple studies suggest that their processing speed scores (and often working memory scores) on IQ testing are much lower than their verbal and spatial abilities measured on these tests. More than half of kids diagnosed with ASD score far below their expected scores on measures of processing speed.

These same kids often display average verbal skills and above average abilities on visual spatial tests. Interestingly, kids affected by autism who have strong communication skills tend to do better in their speed of processing. This suggests that efforts to improve language and verbal skills can indirectly enhance the processing-speed capacities of kids with ASD.

Does your child have slow processing speed? Take our questionnaire. You can find our guide to parenting a child with slow processing speed and our guide to teaching a child with slow processing speed on our blog.



Featured image: Flickr user David Woo

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