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Processing speed

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What is processing speed?

‘Processing speed’ describes how quickly the brain can do things. Things that we do every day happen fairly automatically and easily. This happens because the brain re-uses connections that are ‘well-worn’. It might be thought of a bit like ‘ruts’ on a road or track: when the ruts are deeper, the wheels of a cart will stay on track. In other words when actions are repeated regularly it is easier for the brain to find the right paths or ‘connections’ and to stay on track.

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How is processing speed involved in behaviour?

All brains have the same basic structure. As the brain develops there are some ready-made connections that become stronger. They allow us to do certain things fairly soon in life. Things like:

  • Recognising faces
  • Learning to walk
  • Developing hand and finger skills
  • Learning to talk
  • Recognising other people’s emotions and responding to them

As we grow and learn our brains get quicker and quicker and certain processes become automatic, eg if someone is angry or happy, we just ‘know’ from looking at their face: we don’t need to think about it, it happens quickly and easily.

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What happens to processing speed when someone has hydrocephalus?

Hydrocephalus can occur for different reasons and at different ages. See About Hydrocephalus for more information. Hydrocephalus can change structures and areas in the brain, and the connections between them. This means that it may take more time and practice for the connections to become ‘well-worn’ and automatic. It might also mean that information is passed along connections and pathways more slowly than usual.

If hydrocephalus occurs early in life, a child will still be able to learn and do the things that other children do, but their actions and behaviour might look a bit different from others the same age:

  • They might be bit later in doing some things (eg walking, talking).
  • They may take longer to learn new things or need to do it many times before learning.
  • They may be slower at doing things or in giving answers.
  • They may find it difficult to keep up with what’s going on around them.
  • Their behaviours, the way they respond to things might just look a bit different or unusual (because of unusual ‘wiring’ or connections between brain areas and structures).

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Processing speed and other processes

Processing speed is all about how quickly the brain can process information using the connections between different areas of the brain.

This allows us to:

  • ‘Just do’ some things quickly and automatically.
  • Work out how to think and behave in more complex situations.

All of the brains processes use the connections and pathways in the brain. If processing speed is slower this might make any or all of the brain’s processes slower. So, even if the brain has found ways of processing information, it may take longer for the messages to move around. Slowed processing speed can have an impact on any area of a child’s life: home, school, learning, play, socialising.

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Possible problems

While someone with hydrocephalus may have several different processing problems, altered processing speed may cause difficulties in:

  • Social situations eg keeping up with conversation or games.
  • The classroom eg keeping up with whole class lessons; writing down homework; following instructions.
  • Watching TV or films: eg keeping up with conversation and plot lines.
  • Thinking things through in limited time eg asked to give an answer or make a decision.
  • Getting things done in a limited time eg getting ready to leave the house; go out at break time.

A problem with processing speed on its own is likely to mean that a child can still do most things. They just need more time to: learn and practice; and to carry out the action / behaviour. When a child or young person shows more specific problems, it may be that other processes have been affected by hydrocephalus.

Take a look at the Living with Hydrocephalus section to find information about specific difficulties or issues.

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