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Thinking, Responding and Processing Information – How You Can Help the ASD Child By Bill Nason

Bill Nason is Moderator of the excellent  “Autism Discussion Page” on Facebook.

Excerpted from The Autism Discussion Page on the Core Challenges of Autism: A toolbox for helping children with autism feel safe, accepted, and competent

thinking_processing_nason_150pxWhen in doubt, let the child set the pace!

I don’t know how many of you have noticed! Your child has a “processing speed” and “pace” at which he or she will do things. You cannot rush it. Many kids on the spectrum have delayed information processing, and slow responding. We often try and hurry them along, but it never works. They freeze and resist the pressure, which often makes things worse. The harder we push, the stronger they resist. This is because the brain cannot move faster than it processes. It goes into panic, freeze mode, or “fight or flight.” We always need to be respectful of that and let the child pace the speed of action. Unfortunately, it is uncomfortable for us, but it is necessary for them. It is a natural tendency to want the child to match our pace, but that is often not possible. Let them set the pace to feel comfortable and competent!

Reducing confusion: break it down, slow it down, and make it clear!

We have discussed how the brains of people on the spectrum are wired differently than ours.   Because they have weak neurological connections (pathways) between the different brain centers, they have difficulty “rapidly processing multiple information simultaneously.”   The neurotypical brain can integrate multiple information simultaneously, and integrate this information smoothly. The person on the spectrum needs to process this information “sequentially,” piecing it together, bit by bit, at a conscious level.   They have to “think through” what we intuitively understand. This slows down and taxes the processing, resulting in “delayed informational processing.”

How can we help? What can we do to support the person when communicating and teaching? How can we bridge to two worlds of processing so we can communicate and relate more smoothly.

Break it down, slow it down, and make it clear!

  1. “Break it down!”  First thing we can do is avoid providing multiple information simultaneously, and do not expect the person to multi-task several steps or jobs at one time. Break it down into sequential parts. Provide information sequentially, one step at a time, so they can process it and integrate it together. Break tasks down into simple steps, and lay out the sequence of actions. Lay the information out for them to “think it through.”
  2. “Slow it down!”  Because they cannot process multiple information simultaneously and must process it sequentially, slow it down and give them time to process (think it through). Keep your verbal statement short. Slow it down and give extra time for them to process. You may need to allow the child 10-30 seconds to process and give you a response.   Let them pace the learning as to not overwhelm them. When communicating and teaching, break it down and slow it down, giving the child plenty of time to process and respond.
  3. “Make it clear!” Get to the point, and make it clear. People on the spectrum think in concrete, detailed facts.   They need very concrete, literal information that is factual, not filled with assumptions and inferences. Get to the point, stay to the point, and make it literal and factual. When possible present information visually so they can see it.       Written words, pictures, diagrams, visual flow charts, and visual models provide a constant resource to reference. Our spoken words are fleeting and easily lost in translation.
  4. “Say what you mean, and mean what you say!”   Do not beat around the bush, sugar coat things, or assume anything. Be factual, and be consistent. Nothing more and nothing less. People on the spectrum need to know that the information is consistent and predictable. Inconsistencies and unpredictability can lead them into fright and panic. If they cannot understand and predict, they cannot trust.

Our thinking styles and communication styles are radically different. Therefore we have to provide information in a fashion that they can process and communicate in a manner they can understand it. Simply speaking, to relate effectively, we need to slow “our” world down. “Break it down, slow it down, and make it clear!”

Clarify, verify, preview and review!

Children on the spectrum fear uncertainty. Much of our world is chaotic and confusing to them.   When giving expectations or going into events and activities, prepare them ahead of time by previewing what will happen and what to expect. Lay out a mental map for them to increase understanding and decrease anxiety.   When previewing:

  1. Clarify
  • Clarify what he can expect to happen. Explain concretely what is going to happen, how long it will occur, and what is happening afterwards. Make it as predictable as possible.
  • Clarify what is expected of him. Explain what will he be expected to do; how he will be expected to act? What will others be doing.
  • Identify possible difficult times. This may include waiting, conversing with others, sharing with other children, etc. and identify coping strategies to deal with them. Anticipate snags and plan for them. Preview how he can deal with them.
  • Identify an escape route! Make sure he knows how to get out of the situation if it starts to get too overwhelming.


  • Don’t assume that he understands, have him verify that he understands it.
  • Go over steps that are confusing until he can verify what to expect and how to hand it.

      3. Preview

  • Preview this information when planning the event, and then again just before going into the event.
  • Periodically throughout the activity preview any new developments or changes.

      4. Review

  • Following the event review how it went. Discuss what went right, what went wrong, and what may need to be different next time.

Reduce confusion: provide a “mental map!”

We have discussed how the information in our world simply moves too fast for many people on the spectrum. They have to sequentially “think about” that which we easily process subconsciously.   Given these processing differences, our world (culture) can be chaotic, confusing and literally overwhelming for those on the spectrum. We talked about the importance of “breaking it down, slowing it down, and making it clear.” Information needs to be very factual, concrete, and literal.

Another concept that is important in supporting those on the spectrum is providing them a “mental map” to navigate our often confusing world. Many writers who have autism relate that we (neurotypical people) seem to have a mental map to help us navigate our world.   We understand the unwritten rules, invisible relationships, and abstract contexts that provide automatic meaning and direction.   People on the spectrum do not have this “mental map” and are lost without it.   Consequently, our world is vague, confusing, and unpredictable for them. This creates strong insecurity and anxiety.

  • Make life predictable; provide them a mental map!

    Predictable routines and visual schedules (written or pictures) are very important.  Sequencing out the immediate future makes life more understandable and predictable. Scheduling out the day or portions of the day, and then writing out the schedule (or using pictures) can provide strong predictability to the day. Whether it be a picture schedule, a written checklist, an appointment book or PDA, sequencing out the immediate future is so important in laying out a “mental map!” Changes can be made more easily when they are presented in advance, and made more predictable.
  • For each event on the schedule, prepare in advance by previewing what to expect. For example, what does “going shopping” mean? Where are we going? What will we be doing? How long will it last? What can we buy and not buy? Preparing in advance means previewing what the child can expect to happen, what is expected of him, how long it will occur, and what will happen next.       Lay out the sequence of events, what is expected, and what boundaries there are (e.g. only purchase what is on the list). Lay out a “mental map” to provide a clear path. Do not assume anything, make it detailed and crystal clear.
  • Have a backup plan! Not all things in life happen as expected. However, for common snags that frequently occur have a backup plan!       If going to the baseball game could get rained out, then have a “plan B” for what will happen instead.  If an event that requires waiting may take longer than expected, have some “filler activity” (child’s tool box of a few favorite toys) to occupy his time. Anticipate the snags, and be prepared with a backup plan.  Identify the back up plans ahead of time so they are predictable when happening.

You will find that by providing a mental map by sequencing out the day, previewing events before they happen, and having back up plans for snags in expectations, you can provide greater understanding and predictability to the child’s world, lessening his anxiety, and building greater sense of security. As they get older, they will need to learn to script out their own day to provide this “mental map” for them. Start them out early in life, and include them in your “mapping” so you can empower them to do this for themselves as they get older.

Happy Mapping!


bill_nasonBILL NASON has been a mental health professional working in the field of developmental disabilities for the past 35 years.   He received his Masters Degree in Clinical Psychology from Eastern Michigan University and has worked as a Limited License Psychologist in a variety of residential and community mental health settings in Michigan servicing developmental disabilities and individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Bill spent fifteen years of his early career working closely with very severely impaired individuals, with multiple behavior challenges, living in an institutional setting.   In this setting, he learned how to touch the hearts of those with severe neurological vulnerabilities. Bill has learned to blend together his knowledge of applied behavior analysis, sensory processing, and social/emotional development into comprehensive strategies for helping children on the spectrum feel safe, accepted and competent.

Bill has spent the past 18 years consulting with community residential settings, schools, and families helping them design and implement comprehensive treatment strategies. Bill has extensive experience in coaching sports programs for children on the spectrum, and currently runs the soccer and basketball programs for Oakland University Center for Autism Research, Education, and Supports (OUCARES). He also has a long history of volunteering presentations and coaching sports programs for his local autism support group.

Over the past four years, Bill has developed and moderates the Facebook Page, “Autism Discussion Page,”presenting daily posts, slide presentations and discussions centering on helping children on the spectrum feel “safe, accepted, and competent.” He has also authored two books based on the content of his Facebook page, The Autism Discussion Page on the Core Challenges of Autism, and The Autism Discussion Page on Anxiety, Behavior, School, and Parenting Strategies published by Jessica Kingsley publishers (