Q. If a person has slow processing speed, is it possible to be slow with some tasks but not with others?
A. Not only is it possible, it’s actually quite typical. Processing speed isn’t a “one size fits all” concept. It’s not just how fast we write, or how rapidly we can come up with an answer to a question. It’s not just how quickly we’re able to get dressed for work or school.
Processing speed is really a mix of factors. One of them is the ability to process verbal information. Another is the ability to process visual information. A third factor is the ability to respond with quick motor speed.
Slow processing speed isn’t a learning and thinking difference on its own. But weakness in one or more of the areas can create problems with learning, working, and with everyday activities. It can also impact the learning and thinking differences that someone does have.
It’s rare for people with slow processing speed to be slow in all areas of processing, however. Typically, they have areas where they’re slow, and ones where they’re not. They may even be faster than other people in some of their processing abilities.
For example, a student might not be able to answer the teacher’s questions as quickly as the other kids, despite understanding the concepts. But that child may have fast visual motor skills and be a star basketball player. An adult may take a long time getting thoughts down on paper, but be very quick in understanding and responding to spoken language.
People with slow processing speed can be inconsistent in other ways, too. They might be fast at one task and slow at another — even though the tasks may appear to be similar. One reason might be that the information is being conveyed in different ways.
It’s important to understand these inconsistencies. Knowing where processing speed issues lie can help you anticipate problems. It can also help you find strategies and supports that might help.
The only way to know the full picture is through an evaluation. For kids, that can happen either at school or privately. Adults can also be privately evaluated.
Want to dive deeper?
- Learn about slow processing speed and the brain.
- Parents: Get tips from a teacher on how to support kids with slow processing speed at home.
About the author
About the author
Ellen Braaten, PhD is a child psychologist, professor, and founding director of the Learning and Emotional Assessment Program (LEAP) at Massachusetts General Hospital.