What is slow processing in autism & neurodiversity?

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Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

 

Slow Processing

Jen Blacow

12th November 2021

 

We have been told recently that people are searching for ‘jobs for people with slow processing’. But before we can address this, we need to address what slow processing is.

Have you ever been told a joke and only understood it a while after? This is one minor example of slow processing.

However, this is too simplistic to use as a proper example, as having ‘slow processing’ (commonly found in autism & neurodiversity) is more complex than it may first appear.

In this blog post, we just deal with slow processing of information. Other forms of processing issues will be dealt with in another post.

 

There are different types of slow processing.

In autism, we often come across people whose processing of incoming information is slow.

This blog post won’t cover an exhaustive list of examples. But below we discuss a few examples of slow processing that we have come across.

Slow processing can mean that it takes longer for you to take in information (e.g. via the senses).

It can also mean that a person may not be able to work out what to do in a given situation, because there is too much information coming in for them to keep up with it all.

Slow processing issues can also include not being able to work out what to do in a given situation, because it involves making a choice and the individual has not, (yet), managed to process the situation for personal significance and thus does not know what they want.

Personal significance means how the information that is being given to a person, relates to that person. For example, if somebody told you that there had been a crash on the motorway, the personal significance to you may be the fact (and realisation) that you might get stuck in traffic.

Processing of personal significance is important for day to day life and social interaction.

But, if you are in an academic environment or talking about a specific topic that is purely about information, then there is really no need to process for personal significance – you just need to process for literal meaning.

This makes life easier for people who process for literal meaning to cope better under certain circumstances (e.g. school or discussing information to do with work).

However, if you are in a social situation where you are supposed to process information for personal significance to relate to other people, then being slow at processing for personal significance despite being able to process literal meaning can be extremely limiting.

On the flip side of this, we know somebody who, when listening to people, can quickly process the information for personal significance. However, she cannot process quickly for literal meaning of the information!

Therefore, it makes sense that she is OK at doing basic social interaction, which requires processing of personal significance. But she struggles significantly when she is supposed to take in instructions or understand an explanation, which requires process of literal meaning, not personal significance.

 

Processing Information: Information Channels

It gets more complex as you dive into the topic of slow processing.

Slow processing or processing issues can also depend on the channels that the information is coming through, e.g. the senses.

For example, there is generalised slow processing – where all incoming information is processed slowly.

Or, it could be as specific as slow auditory processing (sound), so what you hear is processed slowly but what you see, i.e. visual information is processed quickly (or ‘normally’). 

This might mean that someone reacts much more quickly to things they see, rather than things they hear.

However, if you added poor proprioception to the mix (the sense of where your body is in space), and they are required to react physically to something they see, like catching a ball, they will be slow and may miss it. Even if they have fast visual processing.

Hopefully it’s starting to become clear why this is not a straightforward topic!

For some people, it is verbal (words) information whether written or oral that is processed slowly. If you have slow verbal processing, you will find it difficult to understand spoken information and reading will be slow even if there are no problems with processing visual information.

However, it is possible to find it difficult to process oral information, but still have good auditory processing abilities for other information that you hear, such as music.

Others will find reading slow and difficult because of difficulty processing visual information but will have no difficulties with oral information and will therefore much prefer audio books to reading.

 

Examples of consequences of slow processing

We know somebody very well who has slow processing of incoming information but has normal processing speed once she has got it. Throughout her life, this person has tried to compensate for that by rote learning everything (learning everything off by heart).

Basically, because she cannot not process information coming in, in real time, she has just listened for key words and then recited memorised answers to questions.

Alternatively, she has used avoidance tactics such as changing the subject to something she could keep up with – such as a topic she is interested in and has memorised a lot about.

This works up until a point at work, but you quickly run out of capacity to rote learn any more information, or at least recall it quick enough when you need it, and your system fails.

This person can do the social emotional reciprocity part and is processing for personal significance, but then can’t get an appropriate response in time. In this circumstance, we were able to suggest an intervention for this autistic person that had an amazing result regarding social interaction.

We weren't trying to teach her to improve social interaction, but it improved considerably as a side effect! 

Elizabeth who is the Founder of Aspiedent, like many autistic people, manages to get a response to the literal meaning but doesn’t manage to process the personal significance. For example, I once told her that a mutual acquaintance's car had been stolen. 

Her response could have come across as quite strange (uncaring even). But it actually took her three days to process the emotional/personal significance of what I told her!

It was only after three days, that she realised I was trying to communicate that our friend was upset about his car, and only then she felt bad for him. You can imagine how this could create social interaction issues.

This is the reason why undertaking a neurodiversity profile to get to the root causes of an individual’s outward symptoms is so important before recommending any particular intervention to a person with neurodiversity.

There is no one intervention that will help both situations above: the intervention has to be tailored to the individual.

The outward symptom of ‘slow processing’ is far more complex than it first appears! 

At Aspiedent, we have developed a tool to identify the underlying issues so that we can figure out exactly what individual intervention/s would help each autistic or neurodiverse individual.

 

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