Fast but Slow? Processing Speed and the Gifted Child

Sometimes our kids dazzle us by understanding complex ideas, solving difficult puzzles, and even figuring out how to read on their own. Other times they seem slow as molasses or utterly stuck. You might even wonder, “Are they lazy? Unmotivated?”

Not so fast…

As a parent, witnessing slow processing speed in action can be bewildering, even frustrating. Gifted children with slow processing speed can appear focused but not seem to get much done. Homework can drag on for hours. Grades might be lower than even the most reasonable expectations. Slow processing speed can even affect social relationships.

If you’ve had IQ testing done, you may have noticed a certain index score was not like the others. Chances are the lowest score was PSI, the Processing Speed Index. When we see a big gap between index scores, we call it a discrepancy.

Consider this: Most, but not all, individuals with IQ scores in the gifted range (above 130) show a pattern of discrepancy. You might be surprised to learn that a difference of 15 points – which is a full standard deviation in IQ-speak – between reasoning ability, such as the Verbal Comprehension Index (VCI), Perceptual Reasoning Index (PRI), and General Abilities Index (GAI) and processing speed (PSI) scores is actually typical.





What is processing speed, and where does it come from?

The Full Scale IQ score (FSIQ) – considered by some as The Number – is actually made up of different groups of mental abilities related to how people solve problems. For individuals with uneven profiles, the FSIQ may not provide a good, single summary of that person’s overall ability. As a psychologist, I am generally more interested in the different index scores for understanding intellectual strengths and weaknesses.

Processing speed is a component of cognitive efficiency and is measured using simple timed tasks. Unlike other subtests, these tasks don’t increase in difficulty. They don’t require the ability to read, do math, or even remember information they’ve learned at another time. Instead processing speed subtests call for students to sustain effort over a couple minutes in order to complete basic tasks, like looking for a picture that does not belong.

A child with stellar problem-solving ability but low processing speed may be less stellar in their skills for executing basic tasks. For example, you may see problems with:

  • Transcribing a lecture into written notes
  • Matching visual information
  • Scanning information and being able to quickly pick out what they want to know
  • Fine motor skills, such as handwriting
  • Staying alert
  • Maintaining attention for a long period of time
  • Slow reading and/or writing
  • Poor math fluency (e.g., times tables, “minute math”)
  • Difficulty with timed tasks

Does it matter?

Some people have argued that, for gifted kids, processing speed “doesn’t matter,” particularly when it comes to qualifying for special programs. I would say, “It depends.” There are certainly situations when processing speed does matter. Looking broadly at the relationship between testing and real-world functioning will help you determine if it matters for your child.

For instance, you might see a disconnect in the classroom. A child might shine when they work on harder math problems, yet they can’t keep pace with the timed basic multiplication tests, even though they get all the answers right. This would be a case where the processing speed discrepancy doesn’t necessarily matter.




Is there a problem?

Like we saw in the example above, a low processing speed score by itself doesn’t necessarily indicate the presence of a learning disorder (LD). But, because we know many individuals with LDs also have low processing speed, it’s important to rule it out. Though opinions differ, a processing speed more than 23 points lower definitely means: Take a closer look. Yes, 23 points seems like an arbitrary number, but it’s the statistical cut-off point where we tend to see a negative impact between index score discrepancies.

For example, children with low PSI scores and dyslexia will often know all their letters and sounds. They can even read words in isolation without a problem – but give them a paragraph to read aloud and they can’t comprehend what they’ve read. These kids spend so much energy reading each word that they lose track of all the words they read from the beginning of the paragraph.

Additionally, what many folks don’t realize is that emotional stress can also affect processing speed. Perhaps not surprisingly, depressed individuals often do poorly on tests of cognitive efficiency.


If you’re concerned about low processing speed and how it might be affecting your child, a comprehensive assessment can often identify processes that underlie possible inefficiencies. Having a deeper understanding of their profile can provide valuable information for accommodations, interventions, and support. And overall, this can help make for less stress, as well as happier and more engaged learning experiences.

Already have a completed psycho-educational evaluation but need help with understanding what all the numbers mean and how you can translate it into a workable educational plan? Schedule a telephone or skype consultation today and have your questions answered.


Have you dealt with slow processing speed with your student?
How did you discover if it was a problem or just a “quirk” of their learning style?

Chi Huang

Chi Huang

Dr. Chi Huang is a Silicon Valley psychologist trained in neuropsychological assessment. She enjoys helping individuals understand their strengths and weaknesses and how they can better navigate everyday challenges. Her research examines the intersections of giftedness, personality, and childhood creativity. When she’s not exploring the human psyche, Chi spends time with her two children, three dogs, and a very understanding husband.

39 thoughts on “Fast but Slow? Processing Speed and the Gifted Child

  • September 20, 2015 at 6:46 pm
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    Great points Chi! I’ve also discovered that sometimes processing speed on a test like WISC is an indicator of a fine motor issue, unrelated to processing. This is often dismissed by traditional school professionals as “just that area he’s weak in.” He’s wicked fast at problem solving and just about anything, unless you ask him to write it down. It’s important to ferret out the nuances to figure out how to help each individual child.

    Reply
    • Chi Huang
      September 22, 2015 at 12:12 pm
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      Great point about the fine motor. A significantly lower Coding score is often associated with fine motor difficulties (though kids who are nervous and extremely careful often have low Coding, too). The Symbol Search and Cancellation subtests rely less on fine motor skills, more on visual scanning and concentration. Do you find that good typing skills adequately bridge the output gap for most of the kids you work with?

      Reply
  • Kriston Sites Eller
    September 20, 2015 at 8:22 pm
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    Great blog! It really is hard to tell the difference between lazy and legitimately slow sometimes. Our son is wrestling with the homework in high school for the first time this year, and his processing speed issue makes it take a lot of time. I’ve always said that this particular kid is “deep, but not fast,” and that is hard to make work in some settings.

    Reply
    • Chi Huang
      September 22, 2015 at 12:24 pm
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      So true about it being hard to tell, especially as a parent who sees all the ups and downs. I think kids generally want to do well but find many of them have something getting in the way – and they can respond to those challenges in a lot of different ways. Will his teachers allow for extra time and homework accommodations (e.g., working the hardest problems for a maximum amount of time)? Middle/high school are also times when gifted kids with inattentive ADHD are no longer able to compensate. These kids can seem hyper-focused sometimes, but other times they’re distractible, disorganized, or easily off task. Not to say that’s what’s going on, but it’s something that comes up for this group.

      Reply
  • September 21, 2015 at 9:57 am
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    Great post. This is important to remember, because a student could be really fast with complex problems, so you think they are just being lazy when it takes them a while to complete another task, but really they just have a slower processing speed.

    Reply
    • Chi Huang
      September 22, 2015 at 2:58 pm
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      Thanks! I often have to remind myself that the slow bake can turn out some really interesting and creative results. 🙂

      Reply
    • Chi Huang
      September 22, 2015 at 3:00 pm
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      Thanks for reading – and if you have more ideas we can pass along to teachers, be sure to post them here!

      Reply
  • September 22, 2015 at 8:04 am
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    My 8 year old daughter recently tested as intellectually superior with a weak working memory – it’s causing her a great deal of anxiety which produced behaviour that we couldn’t understand, but now that we know what it is, we can help her understand herself better and support her to make better choices. An earlier, less detailed assessment when she was 7 showed her to have an average IQ level and she was labelled with oppositional defiance disorder. In a class of 32 children, the teacher had no time or sympathy for her. So in our case, this kind of discrepancy was extremely problematic and caused a great deal of stress.

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    • Chi Huang
      September 22, 2015 at 3:12 pm
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      I’m sorry your daughter had such a hard time in school. I hope the new school year is going better, now that you have a clearer picture of what’s going on. Given her profile, you might wish to keep an eye on her to see if she shows any difficulties with attention/distractibility or reading/spelling. Good luck!!

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  • September 22, 2015 at 11:29 am
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    This article nails it for us. We have had the worst time in school. Gifted but slow processing. Not qualified for G&T programming because slow processing speed causes “borderline” test results (and they don’t want us). Hard time getting IEP because, not “failing” and not a specific enough LD. Labeled a “problem child”, a “behavior problem”, misunderstood. It’s a nightmare. We have shared articles such as this with our district many times and it falls on deaf ears. Meanwhile our poor child has suffered anxiety, low self esteem, social isolation, and stigma. The few administrators who understand shake their heads about what a shame it is that such a bright and talented student with so much potential has no place to fit in and falls through the cracks. Sadly the one or two valuable district employees who understand, aren’t powerful enough to motivate change.

    Reply
    • Chi Huang
      September 22, 2015 at 4:42 pm
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      Ugh, I get so dismayed by the “not failing enough” excuse! If your child has already had a comprehensive neuropsych evaluation and there’s no specific processing deficit that can be addressed, would your child be open to getting support for the anxiety and social/behavioral concerns? I hope the new school year is bringing a new teacher who will take the time to get to know your student and bring out his/her strengths.

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  • September 22, 2015 at 11:50 am
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    Thanks for this very helpful article! My son has both slow processing speed and some trouble with his working memory. It’s meant that he hasn’t been able to test in our district’s gifted program, something I haven’t fought because the program moves at such a fast pace it wouldn’t be a suitable placement for him. His slowness completing work is causing him to fall further and further behind, though, especially in subjects like math, which has meant he’s both bored and anxious about being able to do the work. I’m especially glad you mentioned how emotions can affect the processing speed. His anxiety about whether he can finish things is now making it increasingly difficult for him to get started and stay focused, which of course then makes things harder to finish and the problem snowballs. The anxiety is also starting to interfere with him learning new things in math, even though once he’s calm and we’ve cleared up any ambiguity in the language used, he can grasp the concepts quite easily and can often discuss mathematical implications of what he’s just learned (sometimes actually that is part of what is causing the anxiety…we call it exploding head syndrome…so there is slow processing in some areas co-existing with extremely rapid processing or thought processes in others). We’re working on managing the anxiety (and discomfort of exploding head syndrome), but it would be great to hear any tips on supporting children with slow processing speeds. There’s already such a gap between what he could do if that were somehow managed and what he is able to do currently, and he’s just in elementary school; it makes me quite concerned about what that’s going to look like by middle school and high school.

    Reply
    • Chi Huang
      September 22, 2015 at 5:04 pm
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      Thank you for sharing your son’s story. One thing you might try is mindfulness and teaching him to think metacognitively about what happens when Exploding Head Syndrome (love that name!!) starts to take hold. Indeed, emotions often travel faster than our conscious thoughts! Bright kids are often successful in learning these skills at a young age and can eventually learn to use self-talk and relaxation techniques to get through those difficult moments. These are good things to practice for anyone with EHS! 🙂

      Reply
  • September 22, 2015 at 4:30 pm
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    Ahh…how I wish we knew how to accommodate a 70-point PSI discrepancy. How I wish someone could tell us what that really means–or look into the future & give us advice. Teasing PSI apart from LDs and ADHD has proved beyond our resources, much money flushed by professionals who repeat what we already know, who toss us back to schools who want no part of our responsibility, our child’s struggle.
    As far as fine motor/LD/Dysgraphia…it’s proven impossible to obtain a dysgraphia diagnosis for an older child from various OTs. Typing bridges the fine motor gap for some work, but how can a teenager type math, chemistry, physics, formulas at the speed of the typical high school or even middle school class? That is an enormous barrier, yet everyone assumes, “Oh, there must be SOMETHING out there…some app… Some grad student who will tutor…”. And the college board accommodations for STEM?? Let me know if you hear of any!

    Reply
    • Chi Huang
      September 22, 2015 at 11:26 pm
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      Wow, that is a big gap. It sounds like navigating that difference between ability and speed has been a frustrating experience. Low processing speed often co-occurs with other deficits, and it can certainly be complicated teasing out what the root problems are. If you’ve passed the point of seeking further evaluation, it could still help to break down what the functional difficulties are.

      For STEM writing, I know that LaTeX, MarkDown, and Asymptote are popular among dysgraphic math kids. There’s a learning curve, but kids who really want to do advanced math are producing beautiful proofs and constructions that they wouldn’t have otherwise been able to work out long-hand. Having an app won’t solve the processing speed problem, but hopefully it might be a small step your son can take. Lastly, as frustrating as it’s been, I hope you’ll keep playing to the upper end of the 70 point gap, where your son clearly has some great strengths.

      Reply
    • November 29, 2016 at 10:12 pm
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      Tell me about it. My son is almost 6 and we just did an assessment (WISC-V I think), and he’s “mostly average”, that average being about 115, but verbal was about 150 and PSI about 85.

      I’m thinking we need to got back and redo the PSI testing with something that does more detail. Maybe we can find a specific area and work on that.

      I’m suspecting fine motor as one, but I also think his head is just “too full”

      Reply
  • September 23, 2015 at 4:36 pm
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    My 17 year old son had a nueropsych eval a few years ago and his IQ is 140 but his processing speed is 80. That’s almost in the MR range, but b/c of his intellect, he manages. His discrepancy has been chalked up to dysgraphia. He also has Asperger’s Syndrome. He needs his written work cut in half and still takes forever to get anything done. But more than writing or typing, he has a hard time getting his assignments, essays, etc. organized and put on paper, no matter who’s writing. On the other hand, he is “writing” a book in his head. It is extremely organized and detailed. Characters, settings and everything else are fully developed. He’s tells it to me as he thinks it up. He forgets nothing. I am amazed. I hope some day he is able to publish it. I just don’t know how these 2 sides of him can co-exist.

    Reply
    • Chi Huang
      September 24, 2015 at 2:55 pm
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      His stories sound wonderful – and it’s great that you’re helping him capture them. Individuals who have Asperger’s, NLD, and HFA very often show processing differences in a range of areas. How has it been getting services and support from the school? The world needs to hear from more neuro-diverse voices, and I hope your son will continue to grow his creative gifts.

      Reply
  • September 25, 2015 at 11:40 am
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    You nailed it when you said, “It depends.” As a (retired) teacher and parent of gifted kids, I have seen the whole gamut of processing time, and the reasons behind it vary from child to child. Whatever our goal, it boils down to knowing the individual child to best meet his/her needs. I really enjoyed your article – thank you for sharing such a balanced look at this important topic. :o)

    Reply
  • Chi Huang
    September 27, 2015 at 2:44 am
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    Having a teacher who understands makes all the difference. Thanks for your comments!

    Reply
  • October 9, 2015 at 1:24 pm
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    Hi, we were encouraged to have our son tested by his first grade teacher. He was a clown in class but she had already noticed that he was very advanced in math and she was giving him some additional material. It was no surprise to us that he received a score above 130 on the WISC-IV, he’d always been well ahead of the developmental markers; writing his name at 2, reading at 3, reading in his 2 languages by 4, etc, etc, etc. His discrepancy was on the Verbal comprehension where he scored about 23 points lower than his lowest score for all three of the other tests. (perceptive reasoning, working memory and processing speed) So, I ask you if this is just a matter of him being bilingual ? or is there something else at work here? I do notice that he does, in certain situations, have trouble understanding what is being said.

    Reply
    • alessa
      October 9, 2015 at 9:16 pm
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      I’m sure that Dr. Huang will chime in, but being bilingual can definitely cause Verbal IQ scores to be lower. It doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s something “wrong” with your child, but without seeing the full score report and hearing more about the situations that cause comprehension problem it’s not possible to say what might be going on. An important point to keep in mind, however, is that you’re giving your child a fantastic gift, even though he’s working double time to learn 2 languages at once.

      Reply
  • March 15, 2016 at 8:50 am
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    My child just turned 13 and we have homeschooled from the beginning. He is highly intelligent when it comes to school but being homeschooled he works at his own pace. He also suffers from migraines. We often notice that his brain just doesn’t seem to be ON when it comes to everyday things and we are also noticing that he doesn’t seem very focused in conversations. He stays on topic but seems to go on and on and he is not able to get to his point. Most people seems to get bored when he is speaking and ignore him. When in a group setting and needing to take short notes, he cannot seem to keep up even though he is trying very hard. My concern is that he has slow processing and it very won’t effect him until he enters college. Do you have any advice on what I can do at home to help him learn to compensate now so it is NOT a struggle in his college years?

    Reply
    • Chi Huang
      September 30, 2016 at 2:40 pm
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      College is a highly complex environment that puts a lot of demands on students intellectually, socially, and also in terms of executive functioning. I think it’s great that you’re already thinking ahead in terms of how to get him ready to transition from homeschooling to that future place.

      As a parent, I would be curious about his underlying processing strengths and weaknesses. Does he struggle most when he’s with other people? Does he notice when people seem to be getting bored? Is he able to focus while doing academic tasks? Having a comprehensive evaluation would probably shed a lot of light on what’s going on.

      (My apologies for the very late reply. I had lost track of this post and didn’t realize that people were still responding to it!)

      Reply
  • May 18, 2016 at 12:58 am
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    I’m so confused by my child’s score.
    He has a 36 point difference from verbal iq and processing. He had no outward signs of ADHD or anything. He was tested at age 5 abd admitted to a gifted school.
    I’m not even sure what issued to look for? Any info?

    Reply
    • alessa
      May 19, 2016 at 6:45 pm
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      Hi Alison. A discrepancy in scores does not automatically mean a child has ADHD. The WISC-IV Processing Speed subtests require fine motor skills in addition to attention for detail and speed. Some kids may wind up with a low PSI score because they have low muscle tone and have trouble properly using a pencil. Or, a child may need eyeglasses and they had trouble seeing the paper. If you’d like to talk more, we offer private phone and skype consultations to families who have already had testing completed but would like a 2nd opinion on how the results can help guide educational planning.

      Reply
  • September 7, 2016 at 9:49 pm
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    I read your article after recently getting the news that my 14 year old son has some major processing discrepancies. I’m looking at my son’s WISK-V results and trying to relate his numbers to your article and what his doctor told me. Can you please explain what you said here:
    “Yes, 23 points seems like an arbitrary number, but it’s the statistical cut-off point where we tend to see a negative impact between index score discrepancies.”

    Are the points you are referring to percentile ranges? or points in the standard scores?

    Thanks,
    Sandi

    Reply
    • alessa
      September 9, 2016 at 1:57 pm
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      Hi Sandi. As one of the bloggers for everyday-learning.org and as someone who also does evaluations, I’m going to jump in and respond to your question. The 23-point cut-off that Dr. Huang wrote about refers to Standard Scores. Pearson, the publisher of the WISC IQ tests, has technical manuals that chart, list, and explain the statistical rationale for the scoring of the individual subtests and index scores, like Processing Speed. Through the number crunching that Pearson has done with thousands of students in their norming sample, we know what a “normal” range of discrepancy points can look like between processing speed and other index scores, like verbal comprehension. In other words, while a 15 or even a 20-point difference might seem alarming to a parent, it does not reach the point of statistical significance, according to Pearson. We expect to see a certain level of variability between some scores that has nothing to do with a learning disability. When we see discrepancies of 25, 30, or even 60-points, on the other hand, then we know there’s definitely something that needs a much closer look.

      Reply
  • September 20, 2016 at 10:58 pm
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    Our son has an 80-pt differential between his processing speed and other WISC scores. You say that a difference like this needs a much closer look. What kind of testing do you consider for a discrepancy like this? Do you encourage neuropsych testing, and if so, what type of things would you look for? We haven’t done this yet.

    He tries so hard and gets exhausted and emotional daily with his desire to achieve and express himself in writing. He’s great verbally, but really everything takes longer because he doesn’t focus (ADHD-Inattentive diagnosis). He doesn’t test positive for dysgraphia. I just wonder if we’ve checked everything we should to best help him, particularly with neurological.

    Reply
    • alessa
      September 22, 2016 at 11:42 pm
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      Jane, yes, an 80 point discrepancy is absolutely something that deserves a closer look. Before you start scheduling additional testing, the first thing you can do is take a look at the report to see if the tester gives you any clues or suggestions about what might be going on – either by looking at subtest scatter or by discussing student behavior during the test. You also mention your son is ADHD-Inattentive. It’s important to consider the time of day that testing took place and how effectively your son’s medication may have been at that time, as ADHD can effect processing speed. If you do decide to go with additional testing, you’ll need to keep in mind that your son cannot take the same IQ test, again, if it’s been less than a year since he was last tested. You are always welcome to send an email to info (at) handinhandhomeschool.com if you would like to schedule a private consultation to talk in more detail about your concerns.

      Reply
  • September 24, 2016 at 8:44 am
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    Thanks for writing about this issue! Our daughter has a 35 point discrepancy between IQ and PS. She is 10 now and it’s been a long road. At 7 y o she developed a tic disorder that looked and sounded just like Tourette’s. She would also tell us things like ‘my brain won’t cooperate anymore’ and was suddenly having trouble reading! She was also more easily frustrated, lack impulse control and could be violent. We saw several Doctors, one neurologist said Tourette’s, one said ADHD. We also saw a nutritionist who put her on MethylB12 and MethylFolate to boost her brain’s ability to help itself (which was very helpful and she still takes it) During the course of our research (2+ years) she was also put on GuanFacine and it seems to help, but, not sure, is there something better? Her struggle seems to be somewhat cyclical. She has always made As and she has 504 accommodations at school and does great during an ‘up cycle’ but when she has a ‘down cycle’ she starts ‘ticking’ again. It’s pretty noticeable and as she gets older it’s more and more distressing.
    I didn’t see any other parents talking about tics being part of the discrepancy so I wanted to share it and Any light you can shine in our direction would be so appreciated!!
    Thank you again for taking the time to write about this!! We spent 2 years feeling like we were absolutely drowning and losing our kid as we knew her! 🙂

    Reply
    • November 20, 2016 at 9:24 pm
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      Hi Tracy,
      My daughter developed symptoms similar to Tourettes. It turned out to be cause by multiple food sensitivities. In her case dairy, corn, artificial food colors, apples and several others. Once she was off the foods her symptoms subsided. Any time she gets too much of one or several small doses of several then she starts up again.
      Her allergies did not show up in any testing. I kept a food log to track her diet and figured out the triggers that way.
      I hope this helps.

      Reply
  • Chi Huang
    September 30, 2016 at 2:17 pm
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    I’m sorry to hear about your daughter’s struggles. Tics/Tourette’s co-occur frequently with ADHD, as well as anxiety. Although I’m not a psychiatrist, you might wish to find one who would be willing to spend some time with your daughter, in case she might be able to get a better response to medication (e.g., possibly through adjusting her dose or by using Guanfacine in combination with something else). At the same time, a psychologist who has worked with young people with Tourette’s can help your daughter develop skills for managing her tics and navigating school and her social life. It sounds like she’s at a good age to be starting this. It also can be helpful to keep track of the up and down moods and to understand if there are triggers. Thanks for posting, and best wishes.

    Reply
  • October 27, 2016 at 11:52 pm
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    Is there anything that can be done to increase processing speed? Our son was recently tested and has nearly a 70 point difference between visual/special (99.7) and processing speed (30); fluid reasoning was 97. He has dyslexia. The extent of his giftedness was suspected but not really known before, nor did we realize his processing speed was that low. Pretty frustrating for him. What do you actually do to increase processing speed – I only hear about how to accommodate, which is helpful but not the same thing at all. Thanks!

    Reply
    • alessa
      April 2, 2017 at 9:20 am
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      Great question about treating versus accommodating low processing speed. The answer depends upon what exactly is causing the low PSI. If a child has ADHD, for example, and their inattention causes them to lose focus on completing a task, then talking to your pediatrician about an appropriate medicine may be helpful. If the low PSI is primarily affecting reading ability, the best general treatment advice we can offer, without knowing the specifics about a child, is to go back and slowly re-learn the reading areas that are causing problems and then practice, practice, practice until it becomes automatic. The idea is to retrain the brain’s pathways to deeply embed the sound-letter associations and spelling patterns until the information becomes automatic. That can only happen through regular (3-5 days/weeks) and systematic instruction. It can be exhaustive, but it works.

      Reply
  • October 27, 2016 at 11:52 pm
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    OOps I meant visual/SPACIAL

    Reply
  • March 23, 2017 at 4:52 pm
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    My 15 year old son has a 109 in fluid reasoning and 69 in processing speed. His other scores are in the low 100s. What does that 40 point difference mean?

    Reply
    • alessa
      April 2, 2017 at 9:09 am
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      Cheryl, Before anyone can answer your question about what a 40-point discrepancy means between index scores on an IQ test, there’s actually a number of basic questions that have to be asked first. For example, which IQ test was used? Even if it was the WISC, there are significant differences in how processing speed is assessed between the 4th and 5th editions. Does your son have any vision issues? How about fine motor skills? Having recently gotten your dominant hand out of a cast can lower a PSI score, even though it has little to no bearing on the person’s intellectual ability. If you are interested in a private consultation for a 2nd opinion on your son’s test scores, please feel free to be in touch by email – alessa.education (at) gmail.com.

      Reply

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