Processing Delay

Sometimes youngsters with autism are slow to follow directions, even when told to do something they enjoy. We can certainly expect nearly every kid to respond reluctantly when we ask them to finish an unpopular chore or to go to bed early. But, some of our friends with autism are very slow to respond even when being asked to do something they really want to do. For example, sometimes a youngster appears to be reluctant when a teacher says, “Everybody line up for recess,” or a grandmother says, “Let’s go sit on the swing and read this book.” That apparent reluctance may actually be due to a processing delay.

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If we notice a delay in these situations, we might want to make certain we are allowing our friends enough time to process the directions and to formulate a response. Even a person with very sophisticated language comprehension can have a processing delay. Several different factors can contribute to a delay in processing the words of a direction.

(1) Meaning of Words. Sometimes individuals with autism need a bit of extra time to sort through the meanings of words or phrases. For example, if a teacher tells the youngster to “run on out to the bus,” he might need to stop and think for a minute to determine if the teacher wants him to actually run, or if she is speaking figuratively.

(2) Train of Thought. Without meaning to do so, we often interrupt a person’s train of thought by repeating a direction or making another comment. The most effective strategy is to state a direction in concrete, positive terms, then look expectantly at the person, remaining silent to give them time to process the direction.

(3) Quick Response. Most of us are guilty of impatience. We expect instant responses to our directions. If a person has a processing delay, it is impossible for them to listen to the words, to decode the words, and to formulate a response within three seconds.

Granted, there are other reasons for delays in following instructions. Individuals may not be paying attention or they may be distracted. Background noise or other conversations may keep them from hearing the direction in the first place. A person may be purposefully ignoring you or they may be openly defiant. But we need to also consider the possibility of language processing delays.

We welcome your thoughts about this issue. Just click on the comment button or send us a message

NOTE TO READERS AND LISTENERS: I am Cathy Knoll, a board certified music therapist and long-time friend of many folks with autism. At we are committed to providing free, practical, everyday tips for making life better for people with autism. Feel free to send me an email with your thoughts or challenging situations or innovative solution. Send email to And don’t forget to check out our website for a wealth of ideas and a glimpse into the world of autism.

Published on: Feb 25, 2008

3 Responses to “Processing Delay”

  1. Desiree 30 June 2009 at 4:36 pm Permalink

    My 8 yr old Daughter is very articulate however she has trouble forming questions or answering them. I see her struggling to put it all together.

  2. Gretchen 30 November 2009 at 1:42 pm Permalink

    I googled sportsmanship and I am so happy to have found this website. My son has PDD NOS. He’s 6. His symptoms are mild, but concerning. It has been so difficult to find answers to my questions, because he functions so well. People tend to brush me off because he does so well (his Kinder teacher, my mother, my husband). My pediatrician and his DK teacher agreed with me that I should be concerned. I have been looking for websites or books or a certain psychologist to help me with those glitches that come up. I started reading articles here and am crying for joy. This is so helpful and exactly what I have been looking for. Thanks for the tips on sportsmanship and on how to find joy each hour. I’ve been doing that each day, but you are right, I really need to do it each hour! Our lives will be much richer! Also, the processing delay article was helpful too!

  3. Cathy 30 November 2009 at 11:10 pm Permalink

    Gretchen – Moms certainly have an extraordinarily close tie with their kids and an uncanny intuition about needs. Sometimes that concern can seem overly cautious to others, like husbands, teachers, etc. :-)

    I’m glad to hear you find our podcasts helpful. I just speak from my heart after having spent time for over 35 years with lots of individuals with autism – toddlers, teens, adults. I’ve known some of my friends for several decades, so I see the long-term impact of different strategies and approaches. I welcome your input about any glitch or solution or idea you come up with. Just send a message to I look forward to hearing from you! + Cathy

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