Slower processing speed

Part of the nature of dyspraxia is that difficulties tend to change over time. However, perhaps due to the characteristics of verbal dyspraxia, slower processing speed has remained a constant challenge for me throughout my life. It is probably my most prominent difficulty, the aspect that affects me most besides my speech. For me personally, this is primarily about verbal processing speed – other activities that require fast reactions in day to day life such as driving are unaffected. My knowledge and understanding once I process something remains unaffected.

Slower processing has nothing to do with being stupid or less intelligent than other people; in fact, people with dyspraxia are known to have average to above average intelligence. It just means that my brain can take longer to devise what I want to say and respond verbally, particularly when I’m feeling stressed or anxious in a social situation. Most people don’t have to give a second thought to having conversations with people, asking and answering questions without much effort. Speaking comes so naturally to most people around me, but for me it has always been something I have had to plan and practice carefully and put a lot more effort into. Being slower to process and feeling left behind in an often fast paced world can be overwhelming and feel debilitating for me, particularly considering I actually always have so much to say. With family, my processing delay is less apparent and thinking of responses tends to be quicker because I feel much more relaxed at home, but nevertheless it is still a difficulty when it comes to remembering new information or sharing my thoughts and opinions sometimes. When there are multiple steps involved in fulfilling a household task, I have to get my family to either repeat the instructions, demonstrate the activity or write it down (sometimes a combination of all three of these!) I also have to keep repeating an activity in order for it to be retained in my long term memory, otherwise I’m bound to quickly forget how to do it and inevitably be back to square one.

There was one occasion at secondary school that sticks in my mind which turned out to be absolutely mortifying. I can’t remember the exact details, but in an English lesson we were instructed to respond to a question independently and then say our thoughts out loud one by one, without having any time to think. Whilst everyone else had devised an answer, I was still desperately trying to think and when it came to me, I hadn’t got anything planned and felt so panicked and paralysed with fear that I froze. Everyone burst out laughing and the teacher made a remark about everyone else managing to think of one and questioning why I hadn’t on time, which was incredibly crass and ill-judged. This really knocked my confidence and self esteem. Knowing what I do now, if a similar situation arose again I like to hope that I would have the insight and the assertiveness to explain afterwards, but I hadn’t grasped the self awareness into my difficulties then. The teacher had full awareness of my difficulties and so should have been a lot more accommodating and sensitive of my needs, giving me extra time to respond.

Understandably, being slower to process verbal conversations and always being a few steps behind everyone else has caused me a lot of social anxiety. Perhaps it is the root cause of my anxiety, or at least a big part of it. There have been many more instances where I’ve felt so paralysed with fear that I’ve felt frozen and unable to speak – this in turn has resulted in people perceiving me negatively in the past, assuming I’m being deliberately awkward or rude, so now I always worry what others think of me in situations where I’m quiet and automatically assume that they must think badly of me. Interestingly, I consider myself to be quite a sociable and outgoing person really – if it wasn’t for my difficulties, I think I’d be more of an extrovert personality type which makes it all the more frustrating! My experiences as a direct result of the difficulties caused by having verbal dyspraxia have made me into a quieter, more introverted person. Often when speaking to people while feeling anxious, I’m so busy with trying to keep up with the topic of the conversation, guessing what people may ask me and formulating possible responses in my head, that I find myself answering inaccurately to questions, blurting out wrong information in order to ensure I answer quickly; not purposefully, just because I haven’t had time to construct the right answer in my head. As I’ve got older, this tends to happen less frequently now because of my more careful planning before any social encounter, but it is still an occurrence from time to time. This results in me having to awkwardly message the person afterwards to tell them the correct thing I meant to say, and causes me a lot of frustration and worry about what they will think!

This has been my experience many times!

Fast forward from my experience at school to now at university and my barrier remains. In the first term when we still had one day a week on campus, I remember the tutor always tried to ensure that everyone contributed and was actively involved – this is great of course, but when you need longer to process and think of answers, this increased my anxiety levels as there was always an expectation placed on me to speak. Everyone kept answering the questions she asked, meanwhile I was still devising the right words and mentally psyching myself up to raise my hand to share my knowledge when I’d eventually planned and rehearsed in my head what to say – but by then the discussion had moved on. Public health is quite a political subject which forms the basis for many debates – every other student seemed to love debating in class, but this proved very difficult for me as it requires quick comebacks and counter arguments on the spot. Group work, especially when working with unfamiliar people, has always filled me with dread because I’m aware that my difficulties are invisible and they more than likely won’t understand when I’m quiet and need longer to think. Fortunately, my university friends somehow seem to think I’m really smart even though I always doubt it!

Spontaneous and unexpected conversation has always been a great challenge for me, where I’ve obviously not had the opportunity to plan and rehearse what to say beforehand. For example, on an evening walk around my local village one September evening last year, I passed an old man on his own and he acknowledged me by saying a friendly ‘how do you do?’ and I blurted back a ‘ok thanks, how are you?’ because I was conscious of the fact that this type of interaction required a quick response. Of course, a few moments later when he had already gone I suddenly realised that this was a greeting – he wasn’t really asking how I was, he was merely just saying hello! My brain took a few moments longer to process and by then it was too late. I felt pretty stupid and frustrated with myself after this situation, so much so that I shared the experience on the closed dyspraxia facebook youth group to see if anyone else could relate. Much to my relief, many other members had similar experiences and were quick to reassure me and point out that I might have made his day just by talking to him, that maybe that could have been his only interaction of the day. Even when seeing friends when out and about, because the interaction is unexpected it is difficult for me as I haven’t had the chance to plan it. Another panic inducing scenario is when strangers ask me for directions – although I’ve got better recently, I’ve felt guilty sometimes by saying I don’t know when I know I do. I want to be helpful but I just can’t find and formulate the words to tell them quickly enough.

Before every single meeting or interaction now, I have learned that it’s best for me to write down everything I want to say. I can guarantee you, before every video call or social encounter with anyone, I have devised a list of my thoughts/questions either in my head or most likely written down in front of me as well. This isn’t a foolproof way to guarantee I manage to express everything I want to say, but it does help me tremendously. The drawback to this approach, however, is that it makes my life a lot more tiring and more complicated. Having to think through, devise and plan literally everything I want to verbally express, as well as thinking about what others are likely to ask me and formulating possible responses to them, takes a lot of energy out of me and causes a lot more anxiety. Afterwards, I find myself exhausted and having to recuperate before sometimes overthinking about the things I didn’t say and could have/should have said. Perhaps having to plan everything to say also makes me more susceptible to over analysing the situation, overthinking and noticing what I don’t always manage to say.

I related to this image I saw on twitter so much. Sums it up perfectly!

Lockdown inclusiveness

Due to the scale of devastation and destruction the pandemic has caused on everyone’s lives, I have been hesitant to talk about the ‘silver linings’ or ‘positives’ of the situation. But although I still maintain the fact I don’t like video calls and will be happier when university can resume face to face teaching, I have no doubt that platforms like Zoom have definitely been more inclusive of people like me with slower processing and social anxiety. At the moment, I’m working on becoming more confident with having my camera on and speaking up for longer periods of time in Zoom lessons, but the fact there’s always an option to type your thoughts/questions has really been a lifeline for me. Arguably, in some ways I’m getting a lot more out of university at the moment than I would be getting if I was on campus – I can articulate all my questions, thoughts, answers and contributions so easily through this simple chat box function which is great! Whenever I’m directly asked what I think, or I have particular questions about the subject or the assignment, I know there’s that safety net if I’m too anxious to speak, something that isn’t there in normal times. I hope that when life eventually returns to some form of normality, we are able to maintain this inclusiveness of some sort.

Despite these difficulties, taking longer to think about what to say might mean I’m a much more thoughtful and empathetic individual. One positive drawn from a frustrating reality is that it means I’m really listening to what people say and I’m able to be more careful about the words I use – when I’m taking my time, my friends say I’m able to really consider what they are saying which is valuable to have around.

How can people help me?

More often than not, people genuinely want to help and are willing to learn and understand. Generally, I find it quite difficult to know how others can help, but here are some thoughts:

  • Give me extra time to process the question and answer. Understand I may need a few moments, and maybe the question repeated. Know that I always want to answer and contribute my thoughts, it just may take me longer than the average person.
  • Don’t put me on the spot too much – in a group situation, ask others what they think first then come back to me when I’ve had time to process the question and think about a response.
  • Regardless of whether it’s well intentioned, pointing out that I’m quiet just increases my anxiety and knocks my confidence even more, resulting in me feeling bad about myself. Patience goes a long way; I’ll contribute in my own time.
  • Provide questions and information in advance of meetings so I have time to think about what to say/discuss.
  • Provide the opportunity for me to express my thoughts and questions written down before or during a meeting to take the pressure off. Also, a summary of what was discussed in the meeting with the opportunity to express myself in writing afterwards really enables me to remember and process what’s been said. Otherwise, my dodgy short term memory means I’ll more than likely be quick to forget!
Pre-tutorial notes of everything I wanted to say to my tutor; this really allowed me to ask all the questions I wanted to.

If you would like to find out more about slower verbal processing speed and strategies to help, take a look at this ‘day in the life of a child with slow processing speed.’ This is also applicable to adults and I can relate to it so much.

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