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Asperger's Children and Difficulties with Processing Information

Young people with Asperger’s (AS) and High-Functioning Autism (HFA) often have problems processing information from one or more of their seven sensory systems (i.e., sight, balance, touch, movement, smell, taste, and hearing). These processes take place at an unconscious level, and they work together to help with attention and learning. Each system has specific receptors that pick up information that is relayed to the brain. The sensory characteristics of kids with AS and HFA is often responsible for their processing difficulties, negative behaviors, and unpleasant emotions.

The sensory systems are also involved in what we call “emotional processing.” People use their emotions as a sensory system. Kids, too, use their emotions as sensory antennae. But kids with AS and HFA vary in their ability to process information emotionally, in part because at least one other sense often doesn't work well (e.g., it would be difficult for a youngster with an auditory-processing disorder to figure out whether a person's voice suggests friendliness or meanness). Also, many AS and HFA kids have a hard time using their emotions or desires to process information and act appropriately in interpersonal settings.

Processing is a system that helps a youngster select, prepare, and begin to interpret incoming information. AS and HFA kids who have difficulty with processing may have a range of problems related to regulating the use of incoming information. There are five processing skills, which include (1) satisfaction control, (2) focal maintenance, (3) depth and detail of processing, (4) cognitive activation and (5) saliency determination. Let’s look at each of these in turn:
  1. Satisfaction control involves a youngster's ability to allocate enough attention to activities or topics of moderate or low levels of interest. AS and HFA kids with poor satisfaction control have difficulty concentrating on activities that are not exciting enough.
  2. Focal maintenance allows a youngster to focus on important information for the appropriate period of time. AS and HFA kids may not concentrate long enough on some things, and may concentrate too long on others. 
  3. Depth and detail of processing controls how intensely kids can concentrate on highly specific data. It enables them to focus deeply enough to recognize and remember necessary details. AS and HFA children tend to remember a lot of details that relate to their area of special interest, but may not remember much outside of that interest.
  4. Cognitive activation is a form of “active processing” that connects new information to what has already been learned through prior knowledge and experience. Kids who are “inactive processors” are unable to connect to prior knowledge to assist their understanding of new information. In contrast, “overactive processors” are reminded of too much prior knowledge, making it difficult for them to maintain focus. 
  5. Saliency determination involves selecting which incoming information is the most important. Kids who have difficulty with this control may be distracted by things that are not relevant and miss important information being presented.

Here are some signs that a child has difficult processing information:
 
  • can't distinguish between what is important and what isn't
  • finishes processing what someone is saying before he/she has even finished expressing his/her idea
  • focuses for too brief a period
  • focuses for too long of a period
  • focuses too superficially or too deeply on information presented
  • has an idea and knowledge of what he wants to say in his mind, but when he attempts to share the idea, it doesn’t comes out right
  • has difficulty connecting new information with information already known
  • has problems shifting focus from one subject or activity to another
  • has trouble picking up the main ideas in conversations with others
  • may have to repeat himself several times before the other person understands what he is saying
  • misses a lot of things that are obvious to others
  • only pays attention to exciting information or highly stimulating activities
  • processes one word that someone says, but then thinks of something completely unrelated to what that person is saying
  • processes too little or too much information
  • tries to understand the meaning of each word someone is saying rather than being able to automatically understand the whole gist and general meaning of the sentence

Some AS and HFA children have a processing disorder. Processing disorders fall into four distinct categories: 
  1. visual (i.e., the youngster may see many different kinds of visual stimuli, but interpret it incorrectly),
  2. sensory (i.e., the youngster has problems processing sensory information),
  3. language (i.e., the child has problems expressing himself correctly or appropriately),
  4. and auditory (i.e., the youngster has difficulty distinguishing sounds, although he does not have a hearing problem).

Kids who have a processing disorder have difficulty mixing with peers, reaching developmental milestones, and developing social skills. Processing disorders range from mild to extremely pervasive. Let’s look at each of these in greater depth:

Processing Disorders

1. Visual Processing Disorder: A youngster with visual processing disorder may have problems with a wide array of issues related to how he processes visual information. This is not to be confused with difficulties with his vision though. Instead, the child’s brain does not correctly interpret what he is seeing. Dyslexia is an example of a visual processing disorder (e.g., the youngster may be looking at a "p" but his mind sees "q"). The child may also have problems sequencing items he sees, or have difficulties distinguishing between what is the foreground of a visual object and what is in the background.

Signs of Visual Input Dysfunction (no diagnosed visual deficit): Hypersensitivity—
  • avoids eye contact
  • easily distracted by other visual stimuli in the room (e.g., movement, decorations, toys, windows, doorways, etc.) 
  • enjoys playing in the dark
  • has difficulty in bright colorful rooms or a dimly lit room 
  • has difficulty keeping eyes focused on a task she is working on for an appropriate amount of time
  • rubs his eyes, has watery eyes, or gets headaches after reading or watching TV 
  • sensitive to bright lights
  • will squint, cover eyes, cry, or get headaches from the light

Signs of Visual Input Dysfunction (no diagnosed visual deficit): Hyposensitivity—
  • complains about "seeing double"
  • confuses left and right 
  • difficulty controlling eye movement to track and follow moving objects 
  • difficulty finding differences in pictures, words, symbols, or objects 
  • difficulty judging spatial relationships in the environment (e.g., bumps into people or trips on curbs and stairs) 
  • difficulty with consistent spacing and size of letters during writing or lining up numbers in math problems 
  • difficulty with jigsaw puzzles, copying shapes, or cutting along a line 
  • fatigues easily with schoolwork
  • has a hard time seeing the "big picture" (i.e., focuses on the details or patterns within the picture)
  • has difficulty locating items among other items (e.g., papers on a desk, clothes in a drawer, items on a grocery shelf, toys in a box, etc.) 
  • has difficulty telling the difference between different colors, shapes, and sizes 
  • has difficulty telling the difference between similar printed letters or figures (e.g., p and q, b and d, + and x, square and rectangle, etc.)
  • makes reversals in words or letters when copying
  • often loses his place while reading or doing math problems 
  • often loses place when copying from a book or the chalkboard 
  • reads words backwards (e.g., "was" for "saw" …"no" for "on")
  • tends to write at a slant on a page

2. Sensory Processing Disorder: This is a disorder in which the central nervous system does not process the information that is fed in by the senses. There is some indication that AS and HFA children may be a form of Sensory Processing Disorder. In addition, kids who are hypersensitive to sensory stimuli may have Sensory Processing Disorder (e.g., sensitive to fabrics against the skin, becomes quickly overly-stimulated by too many distractions such as multicolored bulletin boards in the classroom, complains about loud noises, craves quiet, etc.).

Signs of Sensory Processing Dysfunction: Hypersensitivity—
  •  appears fearful of standing in close proximity to other people 
  • avoids group situations for fear of an unexpected touch
  • avoids seasoned, spicy, sweet, sour or salty foods
  • avoids touching certain textures of material
  • avoids using hands for play
  • becomes aggressive with unexpected touch
  • bothered by household or cooking smells 
  • bothered by rough bed sheets 
  • complains about having hair brushed
  • complains about toothpaste and mouthwash 
  • decides whether she likes someone or some place by the way it smells
  • dislikes "messy play" (e.g., with sand, mud, water, glue, glitter, etc.)
  • dislikes kisses and will "wipe off" place where kissed
  • distressed about having face washed
  • distressed about having hair, toenails, or fingernails cut
  • distressed by clothes rubbing on skin
  • distressed by seams in socks and may refuse to wear them
  • does not like to be held or cuddled
  • excessively ticklish
  • extreme food preferences (e.g., limited repertoire of foods, picky about brands, resistive to trying new foods or restaurants, won't eat at other people's houses, etc.) 
  • has difficulty with sucking, chewing, and swallowing
  • irritated by smell of perfume or cologne 
  • is extremely fearful of the dentist
  • may choke or have a fear of choking 
  • may gag with textured foods 
  • may only eat "soft" or pureed foods 
  • may only eat hot or cold foods 
  • may overreact to minor cuts, scrapes, or bug bites
  • may refuse to play at someone's house because of the way it smells 
  • may refuse to walk barefoot on grass or sand
  • may walk on toes only
  • may want to wear long sleeve shirts and long pants year round to avoid having skin exposed
  • may want to wear shorts and short sleeves year round
  • mixed textures of food tend to be avoided 
  • nauseated by bathroom odors or personal hygiene smells 
  • prefers bland foods 
  • rain, water from the shower, or wind blowing on the skin may feel like torture and produce avoidance reactions
  • refuses to lick envelopes, stamps, or stickers because of their taste 
  • resists affectionate touch from anyone besides parents 
  • tells other people how bad or funny they smell 
  • will be distressed by dirty hands and want to wipe or wash them frequently

Signs of Sensory Processing Dysfunction: Hyposensitivity—
  • acts as if all foods taste the same
  • can never get enough condiments or seasonings on food 
  • constantly putting objects in mouth
  •  craves vibrating or strong sensory input
  • does not notice odors that others usually complain about 
  • enjoys trips to the dentist 
  • excessive drooling 
  • frequently chews on hair, shirt, or fingers 
  • frequently hurts other children or pets while playing (unintentionally)
  • ignores unpleasant odors 
  • is not aware of being touched or bumped unless done with extreme force or intensity
  • is not bothered by injuries (e.g., cuts, bruises, etc.) 
  • loves vibrating toothbrushes
  • makes excessive use of smelling when introduced to objects, people, or places 
  • may be self-abusive (e.g., pinching, biting, head banging, etc.)
  • may drink or eat things that are poisonous because he does not notice the noxious smell 
  • may lick, taste, or chew on inedible objects
  • may not be aware that hands or face are dirty or feel her nose running
  • needs to touch everything and everyone
  • seeks out “messy play”
  • seeks out surfaces and textures that provide strong tactile feedback
  • shows no distress with shots from a nurse or doctor
  • unable to identify smells from scratch 'n sniff stickers

3. Language Processing Disorder: This disorder is also known as central auditory processing disorder. Oftentimes, parents and teachers may notice symptoms similar to auditory processing disorder. However, central auditory processing disorder can be distinguished by the way a youngster verbalizes language processing (e.g., may stutter, repeat sounds, break words, pause within words, substitute words, etc.).

Signs of Auditory-Language Processing Dysfunction—
  • bothered by loud, sudden, metallic, or high-pitched sounds
  • difficulty articulating and speaking clearly 
  • difficulty attending to, understanding, and remembering what is said or read
  • difficulty discriminating between sounds or words (e.g., "dare" and "dear")
  • difficulty filtering out other sounds while trying to pay attention to one person talking 
  • difficulty identifying people's voices 
  • difficulty putting ideas into words 
  • difficulty reading, especially out loud
  • if not understood, has difficulty re-phrasing
  • if not understood, may get frustrated, angry, and give up 
  • looks at others for reassurance before answering 
  • may be dyslexic
  • may only be able to understand or follow two sequential directions at a time 
  • often asks for directions to be repeated
  • often talks out of turn or "off topic" 
  • unable to locate the source of a sound

4. Auditory Processing Disorder:
Auditory processing disorder occurs when a youngster hears the sounds of words, but is not able to distinguish specific nuances in the way a sound or word is pronounced. This can cause great difficulty for the youngster when she is learning to speak or in academic settings. Auditory processing disorders are usually present in conjunction with AS and HFA.

Signs of Auditory Dysfunction (no diagnosed hearing problem): Hypersensitivity—
  • bothered by background environmental sounds (e.g., lawn mowing, outside construction, etc.)
  • distracted by sounds not normally noticed by others (e.g., humming of lights or refrigerators, fans, heaters, clocks ticking, etc.) 
  • fearful of the sound of a flushing toilet, hand-dry blower, vacuum, hairdryer, squeaky brakes, dog barking, etc.) 
  • frequently asks people to be quiet (e.g., stop making noise, talking, singing, etc.)
  • may decide whether she likes certain people by the sound of their voice
  • may refuse to go to noisy environments (e.g., movie theaters, parades, skating rinks, musical concerts, etc.) 
  • runs away, cries, or covers ears with loud or unexpected sounds 
  • started by loud or unexpected sounds

Signs of Auditory Dysfunction (no diagnosed hearing problem): Hyposensitivity—
  • appears confused about where a sound is coming from
  • appears oblivious to certain sounds 
  • appears to "make noise for noise's sake" 
  • loves excessively loud music or TV 
  • needs directions repeated often, or will say, "What?" frequently 
  • often does not respond to name being called 
  • often does not respond to verbal cues 
  • seems to have difficulty understanding or remembering what was said 
  • talks self through a task (often out loud)

In summary, processing disorders directly affect the AS or HFA brain’s ability to process information that comes from any of the senses properly. Processing disorders are grouped into one of four categories based on which area of processing has problems (i.e., visual, sensory, language, and auditory). Each of these areas can lead to different processing deficiencies.

Treatment for processing disorders depends on the area affected. Although some types of processing difficulties can’t be completely cured, there are treatments to help reduce problems (e.g., audiologists can help with hearing difficulties, speech therapists can work with language problems). Specialists are able to increase function and help improve the child’s quality of life.

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