How much processing time do you need?

processing time

When I ask my husband a question I’m instantly irritated by not having an immediate response. I’m often already repeating myself by the time he starts to respond.  I have a fairly quick processing time and I am not a naturally patient person. My husband is more of a thinker and takes a moment before he responds.  Everyone is different when it comes to processing time.

It took me a while to realise that my son needs a lot of processing time and it took longer still for me to naturally give it to him.

What do I mean by processing time? 

What is processing time?

Processing time is the time it takes to hear, understand and respond to something.  For many of us this can be a quick process that we don’t even think about.  However for others it can take longer from a few more seconds to hours or even days


Processing the information around us

We are bombarded with information constantly, just walking into a room it is filled with hundreds of items we can see, different sounds and smells.  Most of us will filter all this information quickly and easily to just focus on why we entered the room in the first place.  For someone with sensory processing issues this can be much harder and at times be impossible to focus on one thing. 

A buzzing light can become overwhelming to the point someone can’t hear the person next to them talking. Whilst at the same time the person talking next to them may not even be able to hear the light buzzing. Everyone processes information differently and each individual will process information differently at different times.

The thing I want to focus on today is processing time. The speed at which we process information and in particular communication information.  

The most important thing we can do is communicate at a level that the other person we are talking to understands.  If we don’t know someone’s average processing time it is very easy to just assume it is just a few seconds.

Information processing break down

Let’s break it down, when I say to my son ‘put on your shoes’ he needs to do the following:

  • Hear that I am speaking
  • Recognise that I am speaking to him
  • Understand that I expect something from him
  • Identify the words that I have said
  • Understand the words I have said and what they mean
  • Once his brain has understood what I have said it needs to signal the body to act
  • He then needs to locate his shoes
  • Finally put them on

This is just an example that for every communication big and small there are a number of steps.  For any young child attention can cause you to get lost at any one of the steps.  For a child with communication or processing issues it is very likely that there are steps here that may not happen as we expect.  The human brain is incredibly complex and even top neuroscientists and surgeons only understand parts of the brain function.

Slow down and repeat not rephrase

If like my son someone takes longer than average to go through these steps then chances are they get interrupted before they have made it through all the stages.  Say after 20 seconds my son still doesn’t have his shoes on I might say ‘why haven’t you got your shoes on yet?’ the problem is this is a new request and so the process goes back to the start again. 

To me the phrase ‘put on your shoes’ and ‘why haven’t you got your shoes on yet?’ mean the same thing. However for my son they are two different requests the second more complex as is it a question or me asking for an action.  Essentially I have then provided a different request so the first is abandoned and the steps now begun again for the second communication.  This is why it is so important to repeat what you have asked rather than rephrase.

The other thing we need to do is slow down and give people a chance, wait and wait longer than feels natural to wait. Many with a slower processing time may just need a few extra seconds but some need 30 – 60 seconds longer.  If you need to you can repeat the communication 2 – 3 times but give them the opportunity to respond in their own time.  There are cases of people needing far longer, hours, days and even suggestions that some individuals are responding to things from years ago.

Odd one out

Most daily interactions are fast

The world we live in is increasingly fast paced and this means we are leaving some behind.  It is typical for us to move quickly through conversations and in doing so it becomes impossible for someone with a slower processing time to keep up.  In a group conversation someone may have just processed the information and be ready to speak but usually another person with a quicker processing speed has got in there first.  The person with a slower processing time is easily left behind unable to follow or contribute to the conversation at speed.

Time is fairly abstract and whilst we understand how long time is most of us struggle to identify it correctly.  Standing waiting for the bus for 1 minute will often feel like we are waiting for 5 minutes.  Test yourself, set the timer on your phone then turn it over when you think 1 minute has passed have a look and see if you are right.  Most of us will think time passes slower or faster than it does in reality.

 Processing time is full of complexities

There are so many reasons and things that can impact processing time.  Sensory or auditory processing can have a huge impact. Familimarity can make things much easier to process, if I ask my son to ‘put his shoes on’ everyday he will soon get used to it and may even be following the routine he has learned.  Additionally anxiety can easily impact and most likely increase the need for processing time.

It is hard to predict how much processing time someone may need but generally assume it is more than you think.


How to support someone who needs more processing time?

The main advice is to give more time, be patient. Remember if you stand with your hands on your hips huffing while waiting for a response you can be increasing anxiety and in turn increasing the processing time. Just waiting without pressure or judgement is the best thing you can do. Trust me I know this is easier said than done but it is really important.

Follow basic communication skills advice – use key words, repeat phrases exactly and make sure you are communicating on the other person’s level. If your child is struggling with verbal communication make sure they have alternative communication introduced such as the Picture Exchange Communication System or signing.

Visual aids are key for those who struggle with processing language, using visuals can reduce the processing time needed and improve focus. They are one of the best tools to help process information and understand expectations.  I regularly use now and next or schedule boards along with social stories.

Routines and familiarity can also help but understanding the need to increase supports for new experiences is also key.

Tiimo the visual schedule to support processing time & focus

One of the tools we use to support my kids is the Tiimo app, it is a visual calendar app which I can use on my smartphone.  Having it on my phone means it’s always available and we can use it at home or when we are out.  As each activity begins it is shown on the smart phone and it also shows how long time there is for that activity.  Having the visual there really improves my son’s ability to process the information and understand what he is doing and how long he is doing it for.  Furthermore the visual remains as long as he needs to look at it and this is so useful for those that need a bit longer to process something.

I have found this particularly helpful for our morning getting dressed or evening bedtime routines.  My son can follow the prompts on the smartphone using the visuals to remember what he is doing. Whilst he knows the routines well now he is far more confident when supported but the visuals which in turn reduces anxiety.

Do you or your kids need extra processing time?

I remember the feeling of waiting the first few times I deliberately attempted to provide more processing time for my son.  I remember it well because it felt so unnatural to say something and then just wait for 30 seconds. It really paid off because I instantly saw he was more able to understand or communicate with me.  This led to more mum guilt at not getting it earlier but hey that’s parenting for you.  It now feels far more natural to wait longer but at the same time allowing this extra time has really improved his comprehension and as time goes on his processing time is speeding up.

Do your kids need extra processing time? How about you are you a quick processor or do you need a bit more time?

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  1. Katrina | ChatterFoxBlog
    23rd August 2020 / 9:13 am

    It sounds like you have excellent understanding of the processing difficulties those with autism face. It amazes me that neurotypical people can process so much so fast. In my old house I could hear when the plug socket at the bedside was switched on so no one could charge their phone at night because it would keep me awake. Completely imperceptible to everyone except me.

    Katrina x

    • admin
      23rd August 2020 / 9:15 am

      That sounds really familiar. My sister would go round the house unplugging everything before bed. As a kid I had no idea what she was doing and thought my mum was lying when she said she hears the electrics buzzing. It is truly amazing how differently we experience things.

  2. 23rd August 2020 / 11:50 am

    We are all quick thinkers apart from my little boy. We have to remember to slow down for him! #kcacols

    • admin
      23rd August 2020 / 12:30 pm

      It’s so hard to remember but makes so much difference when we do

  3. 27th August 2020 / 8:34 pm

    I have to say when it comes to something like this, I need time to process and my daughter is exactly the same. Thanks so much for linking up at #KCACOLS. Hope you come back again next time

  4. 28th August 2020 / 9:00 am

    It is important to remember that not all children process as quickly as you. Great article with useful points.

  5. 11th November 2020 / 9:06 am

    Just popping in to say hi. This is such a great read. I do the ‘put your shoes on’, ‘why aren’t they on?’ thing and now I’m starting to see things from a different perspective. -Thank you. You are so right, with so much going on and so many distractions, this is probably not the best way to handle things. I’m going to try repeating rather than asking a question to see if anything changes! Ekk! x

    • admin
      11th November 2020 / 9:08 am

      I hope it helps. It is really hard to adjust the way we communicate to meet different needs. Having said that it soon becomes natural. Giving my son more time and knowing he needs it has really helped my stress levels come down.

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