Is it ADHD or Slow Processing Speed?

Parents often come to Metro Learning Solutions  puzzled over why their child may be struggling, usually in academics, but sometimes also with social and family relationships. They know their child is smart and the teacher often shares that view, but for some reason, he is underperforming.  Almost all wonder if their child has ADHD, and almost all want an alternative to medication. 

Some of the concerns that bring them in include he/she:

  • Struggles to complete schoolwork or homework
  • Can’t get started on homework
  • Struggles with day to day, routine tasks (brushing teeth, what to have for breakfast, etc.)
  • Stares off into space and appears to not be paying attention
  • Often seems confused or absent-minded
  • Does things more slowly than peers
  • Starts off strong (with a longer task or project, a semester class, for example), but can’t sustain the drive necessary to finish strong or at all.
  • Forgets information just explained or told to him
  • Has trouble with task completion (either schoolwork or chores at home)
  • Rushes through his work, making careless mistakes
  • Seems to have a harder time socially than his peers.
  • May have a slower reading rate
  • May struggle with reading aloud fluently
  • Has trouble (or refuses to) take notes
  • May have trouble expressing their ideas in written work, so essays, short answer types of responses are problematic
  • May be slow or have difficulty recalling basic information like sight words, basic math facts, math equations, dates in history, etc.
  • May have inconsistent academic performance – they may do well with one type of assessment but struggle with another form, even when the tested information is the same
  • May be distracted during academic tasks

These are just some of the concerns that bring families to Metro Learning Solutions.  Many of these symptoms are associated with ADHD, but there may be another reason for these that are not linked to ADHD, and that is slow processing speed.  Slow processing speed is generally a comorbid condition (in 70% of cases it is present with diagnoses of dyslexia or a learning disability, for example), but that is not always the case.  In some instances, it is the sole culprit of learning struggles; IN ALMOST ALL CASES, IMPROVING PROCESSING SPEED WILL IMPROVE ACADEMIC EFFICIENCY AND LEARNING.

What is Processing Speed?  Basically, it’s the pace at which a person gets something done.  It is a task that is measurable through testing.  It is a measure of the amount of time someone takes in information, figures out what or how they need to address it, and responds in some way.

Processing speed is one of a cadre of skills that make up something called executive function.  Executive function skills are the individual skills the brain uses at the proper time when faced with a specific task.  EF governs things like goal setting, planning ahead, understanding consequences, organizing, prioritizing, monitoring behavior.  EF skills are almost always used together, with the brain seamlessly engaging the skill(s) necessary at the fastest possible speed.  When these skills are strong and executive function is strong, when the wheels are all greased and moving as they should, everything works great.  However, when one area is weak, the interlocking cogs get mired up and the brain encounters a glitch that often causes problems.   While cognitive development training focuses on many areas connected with EF, processing speed is an important one.  It seems to be the chief weakness in many clients we see, although there are typically other weak areas also.  

Processing speed is the “motor of the mind,” that important skill that allows the brain to adapt based on what the task is.  If it’s not an efficient motor, other cognitive areas suffer, and learning (and other areas) is negatively impacted.  Because it is such an over-arching brain skill, there is a movement to address processing speed as independent of executive function because when it is slow, the resulting impact on brain efficiency and learning is greater and often quite a bit greater.

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