By: Erin Roon, MA CCC SLP
Over the course of the last month, I have been doing some renewed thinking on language processing. With this reflection, I have come to realize that I take processing for granted so often that I wonder just how much gets missed on a day to day basis. If we really stop and think about processing and the great deal of effort it takes, it is a wonder that we are able to have so many rapid fire exchanges.
Earlier this year, a few of us in the office tested out a processing exercise that one of my colleagues had created for some of the families with whom she works. She wanted to be sure it would work, so we were the guinea pigs. She gave one of the staff members the easy version, and I was stuck with the harder rendition of the task. Of course, the other person finished within minutes, while I took at least 15 minutes to finish mine. For me it was not a matter of if I would finish, but only when. The task took a tremendous amount of brain power, and I commented when finished that I was tired and my brain felt like it needed a rest.
Having that experience made me think about how important it is to remember that many children on the autism spectrum have language processing delays that must, in some way, make them feel just how I was feeling. The other thing I thought about was my determination and resilience to keep going, even though it was hard. How many of our children on the spectrum have this resilience when we first start remediation in the RDI process? Not many.
That is why it is so important to slow down and allow for processing time, take away as many distractions as possible, and work for a while on one mode of communication at a time.
Can children on the autism spectrum become better processors? You bet they can! I’ve seen it with my own eyes on numerous occasions; but it requires that the adults in the environment be aware of the need to allow time for the child to process. Once your brain gets experience in processing information so as to make sense of it, the better it gets at doing this. Just like the processing task in my example above, I was very slow at first; but once I had processed through a few of the problems, I got faster.
Our children on the autism spectrum can become faster as well; but only if we start giving them the opportunity to process information rather than just accepting any old answer from them, giving them the answer, or prompting all the time.
What would take a neuro-typical child 5 seconds to process might take a child on the spectrum upwards of 30-60 seconds; and then they may not even process the whole message. For others, it may take as many as 5 minutes; and for those in the extreme, it may be as long as 20 minutes. Now think about that in the context of our ever changing world, especially in the context of school.
I’m not putting down schools, as there is a ton of information that needs to be taught in a day; but would a little processing time hurt anyone? Have you ever been in a classroom when the teacher is asking questions? The scenario usually goes something like this: The teacher asks a question, and within 5-10 seconds he/she is calling on a student to answer. Now if you are a slow processor, will you ever get a chance to answer; or will your answer most often be wrong if you by some chance just randomly get called upon? Interestingly enough, it isn’t just our students on the spectrum that need more processing time. Even the children who are quick to answer may actually come up with more thoughtful answers given a little more time to think and process. I read a book about creative intelligence not that long ago claiming that processing time is directly tied to a person’s ability to respond creatively. The thing is, people who are slow processors may actually have some of the most creative answers/solutions to questions/problems if given the chance to respond.
Think about how frustrating it must be always to be several steps behind. It is no wonder that our children’s responses often don’t make sense to us or are echolalic – repeating what was said. Children on the autism spectrum quickly learn the rule that when someone asks me a question, I need to give a response whether it makes sense or not; and I need to hurry, because they aren’t going to wait. They have also learned that if they just use echolalia, people will quickly give up and stop asking questions.
There is, however, what I would call “good” echolalia – and we all do it from time to time. We all use “good” echolalia to help us process, but we might not do it out loud. You can tell the difference between “good” echolalia and meaningless echolalia. The difference is that good echolalia, is being used to help process what has just been said. You don’t have to admit it to anyone but yourself, but you know you do this. We often call this self-talk, and it is our brains way of making sense of the world. The amazing thing is that I see children with autism spectrum disorder’s processing speed increase as they begin to use this type of processing. So modeling self-talk not only helps with self awareness, but also with processing.
So how do we help our children with processing? Slow down, slow down, slow down. Give your child time to process. A good way to do this is to count to ten slowly in your head after making a comment, to give your child time to process what you have said. If they don’t respond after this, you can try a prompt. Modeling self-talk as a way of processing information is another great strategy that can assist your child in understanding how we process information. Processing is a difficult task, and it takes time and effort to improve the speed at which an individual processes information it can however, be learned and improved!