Processing issues of one form or another are very common in autism. There are many different kinds of processing issues and we have posted on a couple of these: delayed processing and slow processing in previous posts. Although understanding which particular processing issue is causing the problems is essential for helping an autistic person, it can be difficult to work out exactly what the processing issue is because they all present in similar ways.
In this article, we consider 10 different ways in which processing issues may present:
1. Literal Understanding
An autistic person who has processing issues connected to the spoken word will struggle to fully understand what is said to them. They may be able to process only as far as the literal meaning. This may result in the person failing to recognise humour or sarcasm and taking things the wrong way. It might make it difficult for them to follow simple instructions if they are not given the information in way that makes sense to them. For example, an instruction to ‘keep an eye on the cakes’ for someone serving in a cafe may makes little sense: why would you want to watch plates of cakes - and shouldn’t you be getting on with other things? But instead, if you explicitly tell the person to put more cakes on a plate when there are only 4 left, then they will understand.
2. Failure to get Context
Adding context to a situation is vital to work out what is going on. If someone can process only for literal understanding of what is said to them, they will miss the context and likely misunderstand what is happening.
Many autistic people try to improve their capability of processing the spoken word by picking up on key words and phrases and making an educated guess. This works well when they are very familiar with the topic but fails when it is an unfamiliar topic. Some autistic people have learnt to steer conversations to a topic that they are familiar with.
When a more senior person such as a teacher or a manager is speaking to them, they could take the information completely out of context. By only picking up on key words they could miss out on important details and feel like they are being told off. This can lead to worry and anxiety. The person may get upset if they feel they are being told off unfairly - when that was not the intention.
When someone is failing to properly process what is going on around them, especially when there are several people involved, they may try to control people, such as family members. It will appear that they are insisting that everyone obeys them. But the person is just trying to do is to control their environment so that they can make sense of it. This kind of behaviour will be worse when the person is already anxious about something.
If someone has processing issues, they will often not be able to process what is going around them in real time. Not understanding what is going on is a major cause of anxiety. If we relate this to school, children need to understand the context of the information they are told so they know what to do or they will fall behind resulting in confidence issues and low self-esteem. In the workplace, someone can feel that they are always in trouble, but not understand what they have done wrong. This can escalate quickly if the manager does not realise the person is not understanding.
An autistic person may try to alleviate this anxiety by trying to control their environment. The more unpredictable their environment is, the more anxiety there will be. Routines are often important to autistic people because they find change and transitions difficult to process.
Processing issues often cause social anxiety because the autistic person is unable to pick up on social cues and often, at best, process only for literal meaning, meaning that they miss a lot of what is going on.
4. Failure to Learn Social Skills along with Peers
Difficulty with social interaction is a key part of the diagnostic criteria of autism and much effort goes into helping autistic children learn social skills. This training is normally aimed at fixing the symptoms. Very few people wonder why a particular child is failing to learn social skills (or why an autistic adult has failed to learn social skills).
Processing issues is just one of the reasons why a child struggles to learn social skills. If a child is struggling to process what is being said to them for meaning, they will not have spare processing capacity to pick up on other social cues.
Another reason why an autistic person fails to pick up on social skills can be a failure of the ‘sensory filtering process’. A lot of information comes through your senses. Far too much for anyone to process all of it. So, the brain takes a shortcut and filters out what is not important to process at that time. It is not uncommon for an autistic person to filter out what others keep while keeping what others filters out.
5. Inability to hold a conversation
Many autistic people struggle to hold a conversation. Processing what is said to even a literal understanding and then formulating a reply is just too much for them. They may just nod or shake their head as a sign that they are listening to what is being said and in fact may be agreeing to something when in fact they are not understanding what the conversation is about. This is dangerous when dealing with the job centre because the person then gets into trouble for not doing something that the job coach thought they had agreed to do and their benefits get cut. We have spent a lot of time sorting this kind of thing out.
Occasionally, you will find people picking up on key words and phrases and talking about them, even if that takes the conversation off on a complete tangent.
It may appear that the person is not listening or being rude because the conversation has just become too overwhelming.
6. Not understanding or misunderstanding
People with processing issues may have difficulties with understanding lessons in school or instructions (and training) at work. Being given a lot of information all at once may become too overwhelming.
There are different ways to communicate with autistic people to help them process the information, but the key is to understand which way works best for them (based on their particular processing issues). Large meetings where there is lots of discussions and debate can be an issue in the workplace because the autistic person can easily completely lose track of what is being said.
This also applies in reverse and the autistic person may fail to make themselves understood. People with processing issues can often be perceived as not being intelligent when they are just unable to keep up. Many can process internal information quickly and are very creative and/or good at problem solving. It is just taking in information that is the problem.
As information is misunderstood and, in some cases, misinterpreted this can cause other issues leading to anxiety and worry as what a person has said has been taken out of context. There can also be anxiety that the person has missed something important, but has no idea what that might be.
7. Inappropriate Conduct
Many autistic people have a strong desire to connect with others. When they can’t follow conversation because of processing issues, they may try and use inappropriate strategies to connect with others. For example, they may use touching behaviours in a bid to connect - a strategy that works well for a young child. However, when the child is older, this is seen as immature and annoying.
Copying peers is another strategy that is often used by an autistic person. If they don’t know how to communicate well and struggle to fit in, they my do this in attempt to become popular or to get in with the ‘in crowd’. But if they don’t get it right, they get into trouble.
Autistic people can fail to understand their environment and how to adapt to what is expected from them. Transitioning from an educational environment to a working environment can be very problematic. The new employee can get into trouble for inappropriate conduct such as treating colleagues as mates and showing inappropriate pictures on their phone. Or they can be too open about themselves and become vulnerable to being taken advantage of. This can be a particular problem when a child has had a lot of support through education.
It is not unusual to find that someone is feeling bullied in the workplace by their colleagues because ‘banter’ has got out of control and is making the employee feel very uncomfortable and undervalued.
8. Tendency to jump off on tangents during a conversation
In a desperate attempt to connect with others, autistic people may pick up on key words and then quickly jump off on tangents in a desperate attempt to contribute something to a conversation. At first, this can get the person some social interaction because fast switching of topics is normal in social chit chat. But because they are not able to engage properly in conversation, they often feel rejected as other people quickly lose interest in building any form of friendship with them.
This kind of behaviour can be seen in meetings as well. The employee may contribute in an inappropriate way by talking over someone or trying to jump in when the conversation has moved on. This is because autistic people often find it difficult to identify the points in a conversation when it is appropriate to say something.
9. Inability to cope with Uncertainty and Change
People who have processing difficulties like certainty and routine. They like to know what is going to happen. The problem with uncertain situations, is that you can’t predict what will happen. If you don’t know what will happen, then you cannot prepare for it. Even if one of two things will happen, it is not always feasible to prepare for both. When you finally find out, there may not be enough time to process it and take appropriate action.
People with processing difficulties struggle to cope with the unexpected. This can be alleviated as they learn to cope with a wider range of situations, but if a situation occurs that has not happened before, everything will fall apart. Many autistic people with processing issues use organisation as a coping strategy. They make sure that they are prepared for almost any eventuality so that everything will go as smoothly as possible.
Sometimes this coping strategy of being very well prepared can be used to the person’s advantage if they are giving a guided tour or training.
In some cases, if an autistic person is desperately trying to fit in socially and make friends they can become a people pleaser, this makes them extremely vulnerable, and they can be taken advantage of. Children and adults may find that they are following the crowd and doing things others like to do to please them when it’s not something they enjoy.
Processing difficulties can make new places very difficult to navigate making a person very vulnerable.
All of the above also occur for reasons other processing issues. For example:
- Controlling behaviour is also a symptom of Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
- A literal understanding of language can also occur because of sound discrimination issues where someone is forced to glean the meaning from just some of the words because they have not managed to hear the other words properly.
- People who are very detail focused can be very anxious because they don’t immediately see the bigger picture.
- There are loads of other reasons for inappropriate behaviour, which is why teachers and managers tend to make assumptions that the behaviour is due to character rather than something to do with disability.
It is vitally important that the underlying reason for the symptom is carefully identified before any action is taken to help the person - and certainly before any punitive action is taken.
If you need help getting to the bottom of what is really going on with an employee or child, get in touch to explore a workplace assessment or integrative cognitive profile (or autism profile).