A Guide to Slow Processing Speed


Zoe Barnes

A Guide to Slow Processing Speed

The human brain is a thinking machine designed to process information. Just like a car engine has parts that move fuel, ignite it and convert it into energy, our brains have areas that are responsible for information-processing tasks such as noticing stimuli, interpreting them and creating an appropriate response.

While all car engines do the same thing, different engines do it at different speeds. Similarly, people’s brains may be slower or faster at processing information, which is known as processing speed (PS).

Processing speed, among other factors, can shape how we learn, perform tasks and engage with those around us. Children with slow processing speed (SPS) often struggle in these areas. However, differences in PS aren’t the same as differences in intelligence. For example, a child who processes verbal input slowly may take a while to read a sentence, but will have no trouble comprehending its meaning and coming up with a response when given enough time.

In this article, we will look at what SPS is, how to recognise the signs of SPS in children and what parents can do if their child is struggling with SPS.

What is Slow Processing Speed?

Processing speed is usually defined as “the time it takes for an individual to perceive, process and respond to a stimulus” (Braaten et al., 2020). Having slow processing speed simply means the individual will take a longer time to achieve these things. Most of our daily tasks involve many different cues requiring different actions. As a result, children with SPS often struggle to keep up and can take much longer than their peers to complete tasks or be unable to do them at all.

Needing more time to process stimuli affects how children function in the world, which is designed for a different pace of thinking. SPS is associated with academic difficulties, particularly in reading and mathematics (Gerst et al., 2021; Thaler et al., 2013). This is likely due to the cumulative nature of these skills - that is, children who take a longer time to master the foundations may be prevented from building on these foundations.

Slow processing speed can also impact how children relate to their peers. Social interaction requires a smooth flow of communication in which people recognise and respond to specific cues. SPS interrupts this flow and makes it hard for children to engage with others meaningfully (Anderson et al., 2013).

Finally, processing speed affects how well individuals are able to perform necessary daily activities (Borella et al., 2017). As a result, children with SPS may have trouble doing things like household chores and personal organisation, which can affect their ability to take care of themselves later.

What conditions is SPS associated with?

SPS is a descriptive term rather than a diagnosis. While it is possible for a child to have a slower processing speed that impairs their functioning without having an associated disorder, SPS is more common in a range of psychological and neurodevelopmental conditions.

Children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) often show slower processing speed, which may be due to the widespread differences in brain functioning that are characteristic of these conditions (Cook et al., 2018; Hedvall et al., 2013). Thus, SPS in children may be an indication of a more deep-rooted difference in cognitive development.

SPS can also be a symptom of disordered mood or unusual stress. Children with a diagnosis of anxiety or depression are more likely to have SPS than non-diagnosed children (Braaten et al., 2020).

Further Reading


Generalised Anxiety Disorder

What does Slow Processing Speed look like?

As we grow older, we’re generally expected to do things faster and time becomes more important. Learning is assessed through timed exams, work is expected to be completed within specific hours and our schedules become busier as we take on more responsibilities.

Navigating this fast-paced world is difficult for children with SPS. Some key signs of a child struggling to keep up due to their difference in processing speed include:

  • Difficulty starting or completing tasks within allotted times, such as schoolwork, chores or everyday activities like eating
  • Being unable to make up their mind about small decisions, such as what to wear 
  • Appearing forgetful, distracted or “lost in their own world” (PS affects our ability to focus on information and retrieve it quickly from storage; Willoughby & Braaten, 2014)
  • Problems understanding and responding to verbal information, such as being unable to take in what the teacher is saying in school or struggling to follow directions
  • Struggling to read and write fluently 
  • Struggling with maths, especially when multiple steps are involved
  • Having a disconnect between their grades and their intelligence, such as having a sophisticated vocabulary but performing poorly in English class
  • Having trouble interacting with peers, such as finding it hard to “keep up” in conversations
  • Appearing tired or unmotivated even when they’ve had enough sleep
  • Having slow movements and/or trouble with tasks requiring fine motor skills, such as writing

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How can I help my child with Slow Processing Speed?

If you think your child has processing speed issues that impair their learning and functioning, you should consult a professional. A child psychologist will be able to perform an accurate assessment of your child’s processing speed. There are several tests that clinicians can use for this purpose - some assess how accurately the child can recognise and categorise abstract symbols, while others assess reaction times in physical or computer-based tasks (Rommelse et al., 2020).

After interacting with your child, the clinician will be able to decide what form of assessment is most appropriate. Additionally, a child psychologist will be able to determine whether a child’s slower processing speed is a symptom of a broader issue, such as a mood or learning disorder or a neurodevelopmental condition. 

Slow processing speed is an emerging concept in psychology and researchers are continuing to work on better defining, measuring and improving it (Rommelse et al., 2020). As such, few interventions specifically targeting slow processing speed are currently available. Therapies have been developed for children with neurodevelopmental conditions (such as ADHD and ASD) to enhance their cognitive and social skills, which can also improve their processing speed.

A child psychologist may recommend changes in the home and school environment to better accommodate a child with SPS. For example, additional learning support with an aide can help children catch up on the information they have missed and give them time to master key academic skills. 

Want to speak to a professional? We're here for you

The Quirky Kid Clinic is a unique place for children and adolescents aged 2 to 18 years. We work from the child’s perspective to help them find their own solutions. If you suspect your child may have Slow Processing Speed, you can:

Book an individual session with one of our experienced child psychologists.

Contact us for more information.

View article references

  • Anderson, V., Beauchamp, M. H., Yeates, K. O., Crossley, L., Hearps, S. J.C., & Catroppa, C. (2013). Social Competence at 6 Months Following Childhood Traumatic Brain Injury. Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society, 19(5), 539-550. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1355617712001543
  • Borella, E., Cantarella, A., Joly, E., Ghisleta, P., Carbone, E., Coraluppi, D., Piras, F., & De Beni, R. (2017). Performance-based everyday functional competence measures across the adult lifespan: the role of cognitive abilities. International Psychogeriatrics, 29(12), 2059-2069. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1041610217000680
  • Braaten, E. B., Ward, A. K., Forchelli, G., Vuijk, P. J., Cook, N. E., McGuinness, P., Lee, A. B., Samkavitz, A., Lind, H., O'Keefe, S. M., & Doyle, A. E. (2020). Characteristics of child psychiatric outpatients with slow processing speed and potential mechanisms of academic impact. European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 29(10), 1453-1464. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00787-019-01455-w
  • Cook, N. E., Braaten, E. B., & Surman, C. B.H. (2018). Clinical and functional correlates of processing speed in pediatric Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Child Neuropsychology, 24(5), 598-616. https://doi.org/10.1080/09297049.2017.1307952
  • Gerst, E. H., Cirino, P. T., MacDonald, K. T., Miciak, J., Yoshida, H., Woods, S. P., & Gibbs, M. C. (2021). The Structure of Processing Speed in Children and Its Impact on Reading. Journal of Cognition and Development, 22(1), 84-107. https://doi.org/10.1080/15248372.2020.1862121
  • Hedvall, Å., Fernell, E., Holm, A., Johnels, J. A., Gillberg, C., Billstedt, E., Freedman, S. A., Beninger, R. J., & Tampi, R. R. (2013). Autism, Processing Speed, and Adaptive Functioning in Preschool Children. The Scientific World Journal, 2013, 158263. https://doi.org/10.1155/2013/158263
  • Rommelse, N., Luman, M., & Kievit, R. (2020). Slow processing speed: a cross-disorder phenomenon with significant clinical value, and in need of further methodological scrutiny. European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 29, 1325-1327. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00787-020-01639-9
  • Thaler, N. S., Bello, D. T., & Etcoff, L. M. (2013). WISC-IV Profiles Are Associated With Differences in Symptomatology and Outcome in Children With ADHD. Journal of Attention Disorders, 17(4), 291-301. https://doi.org/10.1177/1087054711428806
  • Willoughby, B., & Braaten, E. (2014). Bright Kids Who Can't Keep Up: Help Your Child Overcome Slow Processing Speed and Succeed in a Fast-Paced World. Guilford Publications.

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