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One area of difficulty that many brain injury survivors experience is a decline in processing speed. Processing speed is the length of time it takes for a person to understand, access or utilize information. For instance, if someone asks me which restaurant I would like to go to, there’s a distinct internal protocol followed. My brain has to understand the question that is being asked, review the relevant information and then generate an answer. In this example, I first need to ensure that I understand the question. Next, I may have to think about issues such as what my favorite types of foods might be, how recent restaurant experiences may come into play, where given restaurants are located, affordability of the restaurants under consideration and which restaurants that others involved may enjoy. Finally, after reviewing this information I need to generate an answer. As you can see from the example, even a simple question can involve a great deal of processing. Most people take for granted that their brains can process all of this information quickly and efficiently. However, after a brain injury many survivors find that this is a much slower, much more difficult enterprise in which to engage.
Difficulty with processing speed has the potential to negatively impact almost any situation. A survivor may take more time to answer seemingly simple questions such as in the example given above. The survivor may take more time to react to all manner of situations. For instance, a survivor may have difficulty avoiding cars in a parking lot because he or she is unable to react quickly to the stimulus provided by arriving and departing vehicles. The survivor may also have more difficulty following conversations. Each word, each statement, each exchange in a conversation needs to be processed. As a result, the survivor may struggle to keep up with the other participant in a conversation (especially if that other person is speaking rapidly). This often becomes most problematic in heated, emotional discussions. When we are in these types of conversations, we tend to speak faster. Many survivors complain that they are not given enough time to process and respond in conversations. A survivor will all too often leave such a situation feeling frustrated, ignored or even bullied.
Additionally, many survivors with processing speed difficulties struggle with or are completely unable to engage in multi-tasking. Each individual task requires so much processing effort that attempting to add even a single concurrent extra task becomes a huge burden.
Here are a few ways to help a survivor with processing speed difficulties:
1. Allow the survivor extra time to think, act and respond
2. Only give the survivor one task at a time to complete
3. Allot extra time for tasks, so the survivor does not feel rushed
4. Remember to ask often if the survivor needs more time to think, respond or act
5. Stay on one topic at a time during conversation and be careful not to talk more quickly than the survivor can process
6. If the survivor seems unable to process information at a given moment, if possible put the current conversation or activity on hold until a later time when the survivor might feel better equipped
7. Ask the survivor if he or she has any new ideas or thoughts that may have been generated after the initial iteration of a conversation or activity was completed. For instance, many times a survivor will report that he or she thought of a great response a few minutes after a conversation was over and would appreciate an opportunity to share that response with others.
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