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Understanding, Diagnosing, and Coping with Slow Processing Speed

Social and Emotional Resources
In this article, Steven M. Butnik takes a look at a number of options regarding slow processing speed.

Author: Butnik, S.
Publisher: 2e Newsletter
Year: May/June 2013

It’s not unusual for gifted students to have slow processing speed. Of itself, slow processing speed is not a formal learning disability, but having it can frustrate students, teachers, and parents. As a clinical child psychologist specializing in assessing and treating students with attention deficit disorders and other learning problems, I often hear parents tell me their very bright child isn’t finishing her classwork or that homework takes hours and hours to complete. Through observation or formal assessment of their child, these parents have been told that the child has slow processing speed.

Understanding the role of slow processing speed is essential. Gifted students with processing speed problems who are “missed,” misdiagnosed, or mis-taught may become discouraged, depressed, undereducated, underemployed, or worse. By contrast, when these twice-exceptional (2e) children are understood and well-addressed educationally, they can become treasures who shine in unique ways.

In this article I will explain what sort of struggles children with slow processing speed experience; where slow processing speed comes from; how it can be identified; and what students, teachers, and parents can do to reduce or eliminate its impact.

The Signs of Slow Processing Speed
At home, parents easily see slow processing speed in areas outside of homework. Aiden’s mom asked him to get dressed ten minutes ago and when she checks on him, he hasn’t even begun — and he has to be at the bus stop in five minutes! Nancy’s family is in the car waiting for her and she, as usual, is still in the house, looking for her book. At school, Jack didn’t finish writing his assignment in his planner when the bell rang, so he left out important information because he couldn’t afford to be tardy again for his next class. When Emily didn’t finish her classwork, her teacher sent the unfinished work home to be completed along with her usual homework. These children all have slow work pace, which leads to problems at school and at home. They need the understanding and help of parents and teachers so that they can succeed and so that their self-esteem is not damaged.

Understanding the source of the problem in children like these is a critical part of knowing how to help them. Thorough medical and psychoeducational evaluations are necessary because there are many sources of slow work pace. It can be associated with physical illness or injury such as low thyroid, epilepsy, or traumatic brain injury. It might be related to other physical problems such as lack of adequate sleep or reaction to medications. It might also be part of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), learning disorders, and/or emotional factors. We’ll take a look at some of these possible causes.

Slow Processing Speed Associated with ADHD
Children with the predominantly inattentive subtype of ADHD may have a sluggish cognitive tempo. They typically daydream, stare off, and appear spacey. They may be mentally foggy, underactive, slow moving, and lethargic. Their work is often slow and error prone. Their brain activity shows patterns of under arousal in the portion of the brain associated with focus and planning.

In addition, children with ADHD typically exhibit poor executive functions, brain-based behaviors that contribute to effective functioning. A useful model of executive functions (See the figure below.) has been developed by Thomas Brown, Ph.D., a psychologist at Yale University. These are the functions, according to Brown, that are impaired in attention deficit disorder syndrome.

Some children take more time to complete tasks due to trouble with activation. A student may not begin a task due to problems organizing time or materials, or due to reluctance, uncertainty, lack of confidence, or anxiety. Other children may take more time to complete tasks because of problems maintaining focus. While time is passing, these students may be distracted or daydreaming, drawn to other, more interesting stimuli.

Effort includes processing speed as well as mental stamina. When effort is a problem, the child’s work pace is very slow and he may complain that his “brain is very tired.” When the problem is emotional, on the other hand, children find it hard to regulate their feelings. They might melt down when starting to work or encountering a frustrating task; or they may refuse to work, be argumentative, or have tantrums.

Problems in working memory can add to the time it takes a child to complete tasks. After reading a paragraph, a child with poor working memory may forget what she just read and need to read it again; or he may stop working on a class assignment because he forgot the directions. Finally, when action is a problem, the child has trouble sitting still, fidgets with objects, or may want to stand or walk around when working.

An additional issue that children with ADHD face is having a poor sense of time. For them, time seems to go more slowly during the tasks they feel are boring while moving more quickly for tasks they find interesting. When planning work tasks, a child with ADHD may underestimate how long the task will take; and when playing, the child may be unaware of how much time has passed. Taken together, poor executive functions and poor time sense can make homework take hours to complete and create major stress.

Slow Processing Speed Associated with Cognitive Functioning and Learning Problems
Processing speed is an element of intelligence, as measured by many tests of cognitive ability, including the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children (4th Edition). Scores for both the Working Memory and Processing Speed subtests make up the WISC-IV’s Cognitive Proficiency Index. These abilities are separate from the WISC-IV’s General Abilities Index, a measure of core intelligence derived from an individual’s Verbal Comprehension and Perceptual Reasoning Indices (verbal and nonverbal abilities).

Many 2e children show substantial differences between their verbal abilities and working memory capacity and/or between their nonverbal abilities and processing speed. Working memory and processing speed scores are often low in 2e children.

The WISC-IV’s Processing Speed Index is calculated from the Coding and Symbol Search subtest scores. A supplemental subtest is Cancellation. These three subtests, described in the next paragraph, rely on rapid visual/motor analysis and output. Because processing speed can be affected by a number of factors, it is not a unified construct like other parts of the WISC-IV. See the figure below.

Each of these three subtests taps different abilities that contribute to the Processing Speed score. Coding, which requires children to draw symbols, is heavily influenced by grapho-motor demands. Children with poor handwriting or dysgraphia may struggle with this task. Symbol Search has less emphasis on motor output but requires rapid differentiation of abstract symbols. Cancellation, the supplemental Processing Speed subtest, makes use of concrete images rather than symbols.

Tests of educational achievements make use of processing speed on subtests that measure academic fluency. For example, the Woodcock-Johnson Tests of Achievement include three subtests of fluency:

  • Reading Fluency. For three minutes the student quickly reads simple sentences and answers yes or no to each.
  • Writing Fluency. Using three words and a picture, the student quickly writes simple sentences for seven minutes.
  • Math Fluency. The student rapidly performs simple calculations for three minutes.

2e children who have trouble activating, are inattentive, or have sluggish cognitive tempo may struggle on all of these tasks. 2e children with slow motor output would have less trouble on Reading Fluency but would do more poorly on the Math and Writing Fluency tests. Working memory problems would likely have a greater impact on Math Fluency than on the other fluency tasks.

Slow processing speed is not a learning disorder. To be considered to have a learning disorder, a student must have the following:

  • Average or better intelligence
  • Patterns of substantial processing differences
  • A significant difference between abilities and achievements.

However, research has shown that processing speed is linked to reading development and reading performance. Specifically, processing speed may be a factor in these situations:

  • Reading disorders such as dyslexia
  • A subset of reading disorders in which individuals display marked difficulties with verbal and visual processing speed
  • Grapho-motor problems (dysgraphia). Individuals with dysgraphia have serious trouble forming letters and numbers; their handwriting is slow and labored; they may have trouble with spacing between words; they mix upper- and lower-case letters; etc. Because neatness only comes with their taking much time, their written work can be very strained and painful.

Slow Processing Speed Associated with Emotional Interference
In addition to cognitive and attentional variables, a number of emotional factors can increase how much time it takes for students to complete work. When students are anxious, their processing speed can slow due to self-doubt, uncertainty, second-guessing, and self-consciousness.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) can cause even more slowing. Here are some examples of how children with OCD might behave in this context:

  • One child has developed a “rule” that if he hesitates when reading, he “has to” reread the entire passage.
  • Another child spends inordinate time when writing, laboring to form letters and numbers so that they are “perfect.”

How to Address Slow Processing Speed
After a thorough psychological and educational evaluation, a plan can be developed to reduce the impact of slow processing speed. Intervention strategies fall into three categories: school-based, home-based, and child-based.

School-based Strategies
A public schools’ child study committee can provide an evaluation to determine a student’s eligibility for accommodations and modifications. If a formal learning disorder is identified, an Individual Education Program (IEP) can be provided, following provisions of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act. Students without formal learning disorders, but who are having trouble learning due to ADHD, may receive services under Section 504 of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Schools may also provide services before determining formal eligibility through Response to Intervention (RtI). [For information on RtI, see the November, 2012, and January, 2013, issues of 2e: Twice-Exceptional Newsletter.]

Regardless of the category of services for which the gifted student qualifies, it’s important to prevent slow processing from interfering with a child’s success. Teachers should be aware of how slow processing speed can affect the performance of bright students and strive to differentiate their instruction. Gifted students with slow work pace should not be denied gifted education opportunities.

To provide suitable interventions, a teacher or school needs to determine the source of the problems and tailor interventions to the individual student’s needs. To the right are examples of interventions that can address them.

Other school accommodations or modifications may include:

  • Increased time to complete tasks including quizzes, tests, and exams
  • Providing a method of prompting the student to increase time awareness
  • Eliminating unnecessary clerical tasks (e.g., transcribing math problems from a textbook to a work sheet) and making use of brief response formats
  • Eliminating timed tests such as “Mad Math Minute” tests
  • Reducing the number of tasks required to demonstrate competence (such as 5 math problems instead of 25)
  • Monitoring time spent on homework and adjusting assignments as necessary.

Home-based Strategies
Parents should become aware of the impact of slow processing speed on their child’s daily living and develop plans to reduce that impact. Because students with slow processing speed often have major problems with homework, parents should work with the teacher to determine how much time the student should spend on each homework assignment and what to do if the time is exceeded. The goal is to avoid homework battles. If handwriting interferes with work pace, some of the school-based suggestions in the table can be implemented at home.

Parents should avoid personalizing, punishing, and reacting emotionally, remembering that slow processing speed is not purposeful and can improve. Parents can help by providing more structure, using schedules, timers, clocks, alarms, and incentives. With older children, it can pay to involve them in the problem-solving process.

Children with ADHD may benefit from stimulant medications such as Ritalin, Concerta, Adderall, or Vyvanse. This type of medication may not directly increase actual processing speed but can often help with activation and focus, increasing a child’s work pace. Once a child is properly diagnosed, parents can explore the medication option with their child’s pediatrician or medical specialist. It’s also important for parents to monitor and address any sleep problems that may occur and to encourage sound nutrition as well as frequent, vigorous exercise.

Child-based Strategies
Because some very bright students with slow processing speed do not see themselves as smart, it’s important to help them understand the nature and pattern of their abilities. It may help to remind them that all people have strengths and weaknesses and that having a slower pace does not mean one is not smart. One student loved that I referred to him as an intellectual tank — not very fast, but extremely powerful.

Some students make good use of timers and alarms to help them track time. A teenager I worked with began using an alarm clock in the bathroom to remind him to get out of the shower. It can also help to conduct a time study. Parents can use a stopwatch to determine how much time it takes the child to complete routine tasks like doing a chore or getting dressed for school. These times can be used as goals to work toward and rewards can be provided when the student completes a task within the allotted time.

Conclusion
When they go unrecognized and their needs go unaddressed, gifted students with a slower pace can feel discouraged and demoralized. However, once they are understood and efforts are made to help reduce the impact of the slower pace, these students’ best abilities can shine. Parents may need to take the lead and arrange for evaluations, educate those involved in their children’s lives, and provide their child with unwavering support and encouragement.

Steven Butnik, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-director of ADDVANTAGE, PLLC in Richmond, Virginia, a private practice dedicated to evaluating individuals with attention problems and other learning problems. In addition, he is trained to perform quantitative electroencephalography (qEEG) and neurofeedback as well as to offer an evidenced-based training program to improve working memory in individuals with ADHD. Dr. Butnik has written and spoken about various ADHD and learning issues, served as a consultant for a University of Virginia study investigating the roles of multiple ADHD assessment instruments, and was appointed as a reviewer/consultant for the Journal of Attention Disorders in 2008.


If you’re interested in receiving parenting support for your gifted child, our Young Scholars program offers a wealth of resources, professionals, and parent-to-parent connections to help you navigate raising a profoundly gifted/twice-exceptional child. Apply today.

Permission Statement

This article is reprinted with permission from the 2e Newsletter and the author.

This article is provided as a service of the Davidson Institute for Talent Development, a 501(c)3 nonprofit dedicated to supporting profoundly gifted young people 18 and under. To learn more about the Davidson Institute’s programs, please visit www.DavidsonGifted.org.

Disclaimer: The appearance of any information in the Davidson Institute’s Resource Library does not imply an endorsement by, or any affiliation with, the Davidson Institute. All information presented is for informational and archival purposes only. The Davidson Institute bears no responsibility for the content of republished material. Please note the date, author, and publisher information available if you wish to make further inquiries about any republished materials in our Resource Library.

Comments

Anuradha

I'm moved to tears reading this article and the comments. Thank you to everyone who chose to share here. I'm 37 and only just coming to the realisation that I've been ADD most of my life. Currently suffer from panic disorder and a bunch of other complications that make it difficult to go through life smoothly. I quit my job, changed my lifestyle and lead a solitary life to remove the stressors but the problem keeps resurfacing. A few days ago I had a breakthrough and I gave my therapist the processor analogy. Like when ur phone storage is full and your processor is slow, how it keeps crashing on the most basic tasks. And then i find out slow processing speed is actually a thing. All my life I've been called slow, lazy, selfish, late, inefficient until I figured a way to override my bodily impulses and power through, which has ended me in having multiple and frequent burnouts. I'm great at my job and yet keep shying away from the limelight cos it gets too overwhelming too often. I didn't opt for a masters cos large bodies of text are so overwhelming. I've just gotten so much recognition for my inner child and answers for my adult self by accidentally landing here. Thanks again.

Helen Williamson

Thank you so much for this in-depth look at slow processing speed. I’m 42 and have struggled all my life with this and other differences that I’m only just starting to be able to explain. I am being referred to the ADHD team for the first time in my life. I feel like crying because of how difficult my life has been at times, despite being a bright, capable person with other talents and lots of potential. I hope, with this info, I can start to get a handle on my brain and create a plan that will help me better succeed in life.

Jessamyn Land

Hi Helen. I am 41 and am right there with you! I've known I had ADHD for a long time, but am just now learning what it really means and all the different symptoms I have displayed my entire life.

I wish my teachers had known what to look for, and been able to recognize my issues and help me. All that struggle and demoralization was so unnecessary!

It's taken me quite a while to get used to the ideas I am encountering, and I have new revelations about my past everyday.

My two cents: Take your time as you discover about yourself; I am finding it all a little overwhelming.

On the bright side, understanding and finding new coping strategies is exciting and so hopeful and helpful! I am truly enjoying finding ways to actually function in my life for the first time!

Wurdruw Zurovast

I have wanted to go back to school for years and study on my own to build up my studying speed to that of other college students. College pace is intimidating when one has a bent to learn thoroughly and need to know ideas' origins before blindly accepting concepts. Tutoring and workshops seem effective though costly. I hope students and workers with slow processing speed disorders will march on and helpful approaches taught.

Meaghan mcb

I just came here to say thank you for this post. I (now 33) was a “gifted” kid, and because of that, my adhd went undiagnosed until this year. Smart as I was, I dropped out of high school and my first round of college- now I’m on the dean’s list. Because of dropping out and the insistence of others that I was just a lazy loser, I suffered self esteem and depressive issues for years. My disability counselor showed me today that I have a high IQ and a lot of my test results were around 130-140, but my processing speed is beneath the 15th percentile nationally. It’s SO important for parents to be educated on the topics of slow processing speeds and adhd (in girls in particular) so their kids can avoid everything that I went through!

No help for Adults

Currently struggling to hold down any job because even the ones that advertise as a relaxed pace are only considering average people. Where’s the jobs for unique and intelligent individuals who wish they could get more done in the day? Not in a capitalist society, that’s for sure. Guess it’s disability for me.

Kathleen

I suffer from slow processing and adhd too. I am called lazy on a daily basis. I have lost multiple jobs. I am also bright like you but am now trying to work within my limitations and be kind to myself.

Marian Erikson

Emma, Hank, Poppy, and April, my 15yr old daughter is also gifted but in the 10th percentile for processing speed. She, too, was diagnosed with ADHD by her therapist via self-evaluation, but subsequently her psychological evaluation said she doesn’t have it, just the slow processing speed and anxiety. She has accommodations at school now, but still spends all her time outside of school hours in her room doing homework. She literally does nothing else. I’m here searching for concrete coping mechanisms or programs we can enroll her in to teach her applicable life skills to deal with this and thrive. If anyone finds anything, can you please share it back here?

Kathy wood

I worked as a PCT as well.(In a hospital)
I loved being there for my patients !
In order to do my job, I had to look at my notes before entering a patients room. My
Co- workers would sometimes notice and look at me strangely.
Sometimes they would ask me if I was ok.
Patients rooms were my safe zones. There I was able to focus on that one person and give them my full attention.
It helped to not have over distractions around me.
When I worked in a smaller hospital, some co-workers complimented me and asked me why I wasn’t in nursing school.
I once approached a doctor ( Infectious disease specialist) who was looking into one of my assigned patients chart. I expressed my concern over the misdiagnosis of a patient by the resident doctor. From my experience with other patients, I had a good idea of what this person was suffering from.
Her response was -
“ You are exactly right ! Why aren’t you in medical school ? “
My processing speed and dyslexia prevented me from succeeding in school. Had it not been for that, who know how far I could have gone !
I have always been interested in the medical
field. Still in all, I did love my the time I had with my patients.
I do know that I helped them to realize their worth. I loved them and they knew it.

Jan Keeling

Your story has really touched me. I'm sure you were very good at your job and had a wonderful impact on patients.

Andrea Ali

You don't need to write now a days. İ have a friend who asks her phone verbally to remind her of all kinds of things and when she needs that reminder...just do everything verbally. You can do it!

Jesseagela

Thanks for the help in this question how I can thank you?

Jesseagela

It is necessary to be the optimist.

Davidgok

What remarkable words

Richardsmact

It is necessary to be the optimist.

Davidgok

Excellent phrase

marisa hewitt

I just found out that I have slow processing speed through a neuropsychological evaluation. I had previously taken a computerized TOVA test resulting in a diagnosis in ADHD. It appears to me that none of these tests are conclusive. I say that because the neuropsychologist wasn't sure if I have ADHD.

Hank McFadden

Here’s the problem I’m having with this article. School (K-12), to me, is designed to set you up for success in the future in college or your job or both right? As an adult male (23 years old), whose struggled with all sorts of learning disabilities my whole life, I feel woefully under prepared for college, for which I had to drop out for two years because of poor academics. I am now trying to be a nurse because I love taking care of people. Because of this new route I’m taking I got a job as a patient care technician, to start off, for which I need to take notes to learn. My note taking skills are horribly slow, one might say too slow to be a functioning member of society. And, it’s not just my notetaking it’s everything from gathering my thoughts and being able to explain my side of things and I clear and concise manner to having all my tasks pile up. So, to bring it back to why I feel my school did not prepare me, I feel as though the “accommodations” were really just there to get me by and make things easier. They didn’t really teach me how to get faster and didn’t actually address the issue. The problem I’m dealing with now as an adult is that I can’t just get accommodations to things that are too fast for me. I’m working in the ICU now, I don’t get to be slow. If I am patients could suffer. However, I want to be a nurse so bad and I really do love the hospital so much. These learning disabilities also affect my memory for which people have told me just to write everything down but I’m just too slow to do that. What do I do?What do adults, who are still affected by this and don’t really get accommodation in the real world, do? Because frankly I don’t see any other solutions other than: I have to get faster. And I’m not gonna ask the hospital to give me accommodations. Why should I even be working there if they would just have to hire somebody else to help me?

Poppy Firmin

Hi Hank and Emma

Solidarity message:

I am in exactly the same situation and totally understand your struggle and how you're both feeling. I was formally diagnosed whilst at university about 10 years ago. I am on the 2nd percentile for processing speed, which is pretty damn slow. After being diagnosed I would get extra time in exams which did get me through university, and has also got me through some professional exams. However, I've never really been able to find any useful information about improving or coping strategies, and to be honest this article is the most useful thing I've come accross so far. I'm glad some research is happening.

I work so much overtime just to get the stuff done that's expected of me, and like you Hank, I do it because I really care about my clients and want to help others. I'm an immigration lawyer. But I just dont know how sustainable it is. I got signed off work with depression a couple years ago because it all got too much. I started a new job this week hence trawling the internet for strategies, tips. I'm so worried that they going to realise soon that I'm not good enough.

It impacts massively on my relationships, because my organisation is terrible, I'm late for everything and have no sense of time. People think I'm not making an effort, I've had relationships with partners that have broken down and also growing up was really difficult because my family thought I was defiant and disrespectful, selfish, and deliberately slow to annoy them. So then I would be excluded or exclude myself. It's hard, I often feel unworthy and a bad person, but I keep trying. There is just so little information out there and my attitude has basically been that I just need to try harder and then I'll get up to scratch. Its exhausting!!!!

I dont really have any answers. It's nice to know that there are others with similar struggle, try to remind yourself of the positives like I was told that I make fewer errors because I work so slowly, and I take time for people and being very present with them, I guess just try to celebrate the little wins at work and in life.

:)

P.S. Thanks Dr Butnik for this useful article.

APRIL RAGUSA

Hank, your story hits me right in the heart! I feel so frustrated for you and what you are experiencing. I have imagined your story thousands of times for years and years. You see, I have a child that from the time he was 3 I recognized struggles in him that I could not put into words myself. He was diagnosed with ASD, and ADHD and through therapy, medication, a load of patience and frustration, we have made it through school. The school never seemed to think he needed any additional instruction because his testing scores were all ok. His reading has always been very low. My husband and I have spent most of our 'after-school' afternoons sitting at the dining table reviewing any worksheets or papers he'd bring home from school to ensure he actually gained an understanding of concepts being "taught" in school. We have binders full of notes that we made to go through with him. Pictures that we'd draw to help him make associations and questions we'd write in a way that he could understand so he could answer correctly. I have felt at times that the future that you are experiencing is what lies ahead for my son and I feel helpless. I have him enrolled in an online private school now, and the immediate feedback and one on one time he has with me being at his side day after day has built his confidence a lot. His reading is improving, but still at a much lower grade level. He does well in math, but we are really struggling when it comes to taking notes and helping him to realize what is even important enough to make note of as well as finding a way to organize notes that will benefit his way of processing. He had " accommodations" before covid, in regular school, and like you said, it seemed as though that was just a way the school could get him by without investing additional time to "educate" him. I know that regular teachers are not prepared to deal with learning disorders. As I sit here this evening after a really long day of school with him, I am searching the internet constantly for anything and everything I can find that would help me teach him how to strength his low working memory function and slow cognitive function.
I know this is not helping you in your situation at all, but I just wanted you to know that this momma understands what you are facing and maybe it will be of some reassurance to you that I am trying my best not to let my kiddo get to the point in life where you are without enabling him with every tool I can. I'm not perfect and have my own issues to overcome as well, so I don't always have the best solutions for him.

Maybe your desire to care for people will lead you to helping kiddos like mine, and like you, so they don't have to face life without the skills they need to succeed.

Bless you, and know that I at least understand your struggle if that is any consultation. i wish you the best of luck in your journey!

Emma Bennet

I'm the same age as yourself and have gone through (and continue to struggle with) a similar academic experience. I strongly resonate with your concerns about real world work/jobs and would be curious to know the author's reply. Out of curiosity, when/how were you "diagnosed" (it fells like the wrong word, only because SP "isn't a learning disability") with slow processing (and if applicable, ADHD)? I was evaluated couple years ago by an educational psychologist who diagnosed my slow processing. A therapist previously diagnosed me with ADHD via self-evaluation but my educational psychologist disagreed. In short, I feel a bit lost and have been trying to find online communities/forums of other people with slow processing.

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