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Processing speed issues are challenging at all ages


Sara is now 22 years old and still struggling with processing speed issues.  Here is Sara’s story:

When I was 12 years old, I was diagnosed with slow processing speed, given a 504 plan, and told this was a part of my life that 1) would not go away and 2) I would have to get used to. I thought I was mentally handicapped. My mom is a special education teacher, and she explained to me that this did not mean I lacked intelligence, but that it took longer for me to process information. This proved true when, in seventh grade, with an influx in work and sport activity, I stayed up until 1 or 2 every night finishing my homework.

I have always been motivated to not only complete assignments, but to do the best I can on them. However, this diagnosis became an excuse for any mistakes I made – so if ever I did not understand something right away, I laughed it off to slow processing. But, inside I was an emotional wreck questioning myself and my abilities. I know you’ve worked with a lot of children who have this, so I’m sure you see when they first come in your office that their confidence is very low. Confidence has always been a struggle for me, and it wasn’t until I really pursued writing (I wrote a 250 page novel when I was 14, still hidden away on my bookshelf) that I gained a little confidence in myself. But my confidence level is a roller coaster ride, and varies all the time.

Now that I have given you a bit of background, I would like to ask you a question. I am 22 years old, and very unhappy with my processing abilities. I recently read a book by Joshua Foer titled Moonwalking with Einstein about Foer’s yearlong journey to improve his memory that concluded in his winning the United States Memory Championship. This book was an inspiration to me because it made me finally realize that the brain can change – something no one had educated me on when I was a 12-year-old, scared, recently diagnosed kid.

I graduated from college a little less than a year ago now with a degree in English and minor in Psychology. I currently work at a publishing company in New York, and am incredibly happy with how my life has gone. I have “compensated” for my disability – as my mom always said I would, but I want more than that. I want to be able to change my processing abilities. I want to have intelligent, abstract conversations with people that don’t end with me saying, “let me think about that a little more.”

So, finally my question is, what do you recommend I do to improve my processing abilities? I know the process will be difficult, but I also know how beneficial it will be for the rest of my life. It has taken me a lot to get to the point I am at now, admitting that I am faulted in my processing abilities, but there is hope on the horizon if there is something I can do about it. Please let me know if you have any advice for me. I would much appreciate it.

Thank you for your time and consideration. I admire what you are doing for children and parents, and only hope that one day I can share my experiences and help out someone just like me.

Sara’s story is inspirational. While she still struggles to think quickly on her feet, she has dealt with her slow processing speed, graduated from college and landed a great job that makes her happy. What more do we want for our children? It shows that with support and guidance the diagnoses of a processing speed issue is not a reason to despair.

Sara’s mother believed in Sara and was practical and realistic in her advice. I think this is a key factor in Sara’s success. Her mother explained that being slow is not the same as being dumb. If you are reading this because your child is slow, please find out about your child’s intellectual strengths and highlight those strengths when you talk to your child. Remind him often of what he is good at. The strengths you pick need to real; children know the truth about themselves even if they can’t articulate it. So, be real and encouraging.

Now to Sara’s question, what can she do to continue to increase her processing speed? Sara is referring to cognitive processing speed, how fast she can take in and process information, organize it and then respond. This is different than visual-motor processing speed that refers to how quickly you can take in visual information and then draw or write it. Sara wants to be an active participant in a fast paced, intellectual conversation.

Processing speed (PS) training has been found to be effective in adults.  One study, Effects of Training of Processing Speed on Neural Systems investigated the effects of PS training on the PS of young adults and on neural mechanisms. The results demonstrate that PS training increased brain plasticity (the brain’s ability to change).  The results of the study also found that a wide range of cognitive interventions involving speeded training tasks led to an improvement in cognitive functioning.

It is worthwhile to note that the PS training improved PS but not working memory, reasoning, or creativity. To achieve Sara’s goal of participating in fluid conversation, she may need to build her processing speed as well as her working memory. There are programs that are designed to do just that. At the K&M Center we use:

  1. Cogmed to build working memory skills

  2. PACE (Processing and Cognitive Enhancement) to build visual and auditory processing

  3. Flexible Thinking Program to build cognitive flexibility

Other Programs I have not used but are available and look effective, include:

  1. Brain HQ:  exercises your memory, attention, and more

  2. Lumosity:  trains a range of cognitive functions, from working memory to fluid intelligence

  3. Brain Training 101 Program: training exposes each student to a customized series of intense mental workouts

These training programs are designed to build neuro-pathways that help information flow around the brain faster. Studies show beneficial results. Research continues to investigate the methods, amount of time and results of processing speed interventions. It can be presumed that actively engaging the part of the brain you want to develop will strengthen it. The term “build the brain” refers to the brain as a mental muscle and we know exercising muscles makes them stronger and more effective.

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