Delayed processing in autism

As a consequence of a fragmented perception autistic children may experience delayed response to sensory stimuli, for example, you say something to your child, and there is no response as if the child didn’t hear you. However, actually the child has started to process your question/instruction in order to respond with meaning, but he/she may need some time to process the question and prepare their response. (Immediate responses are often given on ‘autopilot’, triggered by memories. In these cases, a person does not mean and does not know what he ‘has said’.) Before proper response autistic people must go through a number of separate stages in perception, and if this long decision-chain is interrupted by the outside world (for instance, we repeat the same question), the autistic person must start all over again because ‘the same (but yet unprocessed) question’ is a new one for them. In other words, an interruption effectively wipes away any intermediate result, confronting the autistic person literally “for the first time” with the same object/event/situation.

The experience of ‘delayed hearing’ happens when the question/instruction has been sensed and recorded without interpretation until the second (internalised) hearing (i.e. processing of the received message). They may be able to repeat back what has been said without comprehension that will come later. In less extreme cases, to process something takes seconds or minutes. Sometimes it takes days, weeks or months. In the most extreme cases, it can take years to process what has been said. The words, phrases, sentences, sometimes the whole situations are stored and they can be triggered at any time. You must be a detective to connect the child’s ‘announcement’ with the question he/she was asked a week before.

A person can be delayed on every sensory channel. For example, if they experience delayed visual processing, the acquisition of the full meaning requires some observation time from different points of view; besides, people with autism must translate perceptual images into their proper terminology.

Perception by parts requires a great amount of time and effort to interpret the whole. Many autistic individuals emphasise that they need a great amount of ‘thinking’ to make sense of the world. Every step of perception they experience explicitly, in a not-automatic way with a great mental effort involved. Their subjective experience of time is also different from that of non-autistics. For them, time might seem faster, whereas non-autistic people may think that autistic children are slow in their decision-making.

There are several consequences of delayed processing:

  • They are often unable to start the action immediately as they need time to interpret and comprehend the situation.
  • When they finally reach ‘comprehension’, the situation has changed. It means that they ‘experience meaning’ out of the context it should have been experienced. That is why, new experiences, no matter how similar to previous ones, are perceived as new, unfamiliar and unpredictable, and responses to them are poor regardless of the number of times the person has experienced the same thing (Williams, 1996).
  • The amount of time needed to process any experience often remains slow (or delayed) regardless of having had similar experiences in the past, things do not get easier with time or learning (Williams, 1996). They are not able to apply something they have learned in one situation to another.

What we can do to help:

Give them time to take in your question/instruction and to work out their response. Do not interrupt. Be aware that autistic individuals often require more time than others to shift their attention between stimuli of different modalities and they find it extremely difficult to follow rapidly changing social interactions.


Williams, D. (1996) Autism: An inside-out approach. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Written by Olga Bogdashina on behalf of Integrated Treatment Services.