Processing Disorder, Does It Exist? | Tampa Child Psychologist
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Learning the Meaning of “Cognitive Processing Disorder”

Betsy is a sweet 3rd grader who wears her long hair in two braids and loves to run errands for her teacher. She has many friends in her class and loves everything about dogs and cats. In class, despite wanting to do well. Betsy often has difficulty following directions and seems to forget instructions almost as soon as they are explained. When the teacher meets with students in small groups, Betsy seems easily distracted and needs frequent redirection to stay on task. She often requires more time than other students to both start and complete her work. Her parents and teacher are unsure whether Betsy might have an attention disorder, a processing disorder, a hearing problem or a learning disability.

cognitive processing disorder

Parents, teachers and doctors sometimes mention children having a “processing disorder”. The term itself can be difficult to understand as it has several meanings. This piece will highlight what a processing disorder is and how it can be treated in children. However, it’s very important to understand that adults can also deal with the same issue and may find the information below helpful.

Identifying a processing disorder in your child can be a challenge, but Rice Psychology Group will do everything in its power to find and treat the issue.


What is a Processing Disorder?

“Processing” refers to how information is dealt with by the brain. This information must first be received through our senses, meaning it has to be seen, heard, smelled or felt. The next step involves what the brain will do with that information. One example of a processing disorder can involve memory. If information is stored in long-term memory, which ranges from 5 minutes to years, it must be “catalogued”, meaning it will be stored in such a way that makes it easier to remember at a later time. A processing disorder can result from a breakdown of this system, meaning the memory may not be effectively processed and/or retained and/or retrieved.

There are currently no diagnostic manuals labeling any disorder as a “processing disorder”, and there is limited agreement across professional disciplines if such a thing even exists. However, many health professionals relate back to the umbrella term of “processing disorder” by simply using different names for diagnoses. For example, occupational therapists have built careers around helping children with Sensory Integration Disorder, which is a problem with too much or too little sensitivity for sensory input, or difficulty processing information using the senses. Here are a few examples:

  • A child who is highly sensitive to certain fabrics touching his/her skin
  • A child who hates walking in sand or touching sticky surfaces
  • An otherwise healthy child who has trouble tolerating loud noises

Another example involves difficulty processing information that a child hears. With this type of problem, a child might have difficulty paying attention with background noises going on, when asked to listen for long periods of time or recalling multiple pieces of information.

There is no official disorder in any diagnostic manual called "Processing Disorder"... Click To Tweet

An audiologist would most likely diagnose this issue as an Auditory Processing Disorder or Central Auditory Processing Disorder. A speech/language pathologist might label it as a Receptive Language Disorder. A psychologist or psychiatrist might diagnose the child with ADD or ADHD. If you’ve kept note, these were five possible diagnoses for one issue!

How to Identify a Processing Disorder

cognitiveprocessingissuesWith so many options to identify a processing disorder, it can be hard to understand its many aspects. Here is one model adapted from the Woodcock-Johnson Tests of Cognitive Abilities, which breaks down processing and memory problems into specific areas of cognitive (thinking) abilities. Each of these areas should be reviewed with a psychoeducational evaluation or assessment performed by a licensed psychologist.

The various ways of identifying a processing disorder makes it hard understand the disorder. Click To Tweet

Individuals can have strengths, weaknesses or average functioning in any or all of these areas, which psychologists can analyze to identify individual profiles and needs. These cognitive areas include the following:


  • Visual-Spatial Processing: The ability to observe, examine, synthesize (put back together) and think using visual patterns, including the ability to store and recall things visually.
  • Auditory Processing: The capacity to examine, synthesize and differentiate between sounds, including the ability to process and distinguish sounds heard under distorted conditions.
  • Processing Speed: Measures the ability to perform automatic mental tasks, particularly when under pressure to maintain attention.
  • Phonemic Awareness and Processing: Includes the knowledge and skills related to analyzing and synthesizing speech sounds. This includes blending sounds into words (c-a-t = cat) and rhyming and manipulating sounds (changing the “m” in mother to a “b” so it forms the word “brother”).


  • Short-Term Memory: The ability to apprehend and hold information immediately to use it within a few seconds.
  • Working Memory: Holding information immediately while performing a mental operation on it.
  • LongTerm Retrieval: The ability to store information and easily retrieve it later in the process of thinking. Long-term retrieval should not be confused with long-term memory, which may be better described as the storing of acquired knowledge.
  • Delayed Recall: Measures the ability to recall and relearn associations that were previously learned.

Attention and Executive Functioning

  • Broad Attention: A complex and multilayered concept where an individual focuses on certain stimuli for information processing. These facets include focused or selective attention, vigilance or sustained attention, divided attention and attentional capacity or working memory.
  • Cognitive Efficiency: This represents the ability for the brain to automatically process information.
  • Cognitive Fluency: Measures the ease and speed an individual performs cognitive tasks.
  • Executive Processes: Includes three aspects of executive functioning-strategic planning, proactive interference control and one’s ability to repeatedly shift their mental set.

How Can We Help?

Understanding oneself is critical to changing and growing... Click To Tweet

While the term “processing disorder” is not considered an official diagnosis, it does exist as a way to identify cognitive problems. We will gather a thorough personal history and obtain information from a child’s school (if appropriate) and examine their reading, writing, math and oral language skills. As needed, we will additionally look at attention, self-control and memory. Beyond that, we assess how quickly he/she can perform simple paper and pencil tasks, manage visual information such as shapes and puzzles, as well as answer oral questions.

Our staff takes the necessary steps to evaluate social, emotional and executive functioning. Finally, we interpret the results and provide valuable information to parents, the person being assessed, teachers and other professionals as requested. Explaining results to parents or clients is one of the most important aspects of this process. Understanding oneself is critical to changing and growing, and can also dispel many misconceptions. If you have any questions, or if you’re looking for more information, get in touch with any of our Tampa psychologists today.

About Rice Psychology

Rice Psychology Group is home to a team of psychologists who work tirelessly to help adults, adolescents and children deal with their issues. Whether you’re currently dealing with depression, going through a divorce or fighting an issue you just can’t understand, know that our Tampa psychologists are here to help.

5 Responses to “Learning the Meaning of “Cognitive Processing Disorder””

  1. My 8th grade son was diagnosed with a processing disorder a year ago, but the school says there are no interventions, you are just slow. He tells his teachers he cannot read but they tell him he’s a good reader, and say he refuses to read. A private evaluation diagnosed dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia, and autism, but the school will not accept. An earlier evaluation identified a reading disability, ADHD, and ODD. The WISC tend to be pretty consistent on the top, but all over on the bottom. His test scores 4th grade / 7th / 8th: VCI= 124 / 124 / 133, VSI (7/8)= 108 / 114, FRI (7/8) = 115 / 118, WMI = 80 / 97 / 94, PSI = 83 / 56 / 86 . How do we find the help he needs?

    • Dr. Wendy Rice

      Dear Kim,

      Thank you for reaching out. What a tough situation.
      Have you considered reaching out to an educational advocate? This is someone who knows education law and can help you secure the appropriate services for your son? If you are located near Tampa or Orlando, feel free to call my office at 813-969-3878, ask to speak with me and I can offer you some terrific resources.

      Have you been to ? It is a go to site for education law written for parents and professionals.

      And of course you are welcome to set up a consultation with me if you would like me to receive your son’s evaluations and school performance.

      Dr. Wendy Rice

  2. My son was diagnosed with ADHD and OCD at age 5 he is 8 now and we’ve had him reassessed with Vanderbilt’s and the doctor says that his those diagnoses are not so much there any more it there is concern for a processing disorder. He can be slow in processing things. Then, I as a 30 year old, realized I can be very slow at processing. Sometimes it takes months to process what someone as said. I know I will hear something and not understand what I just heard and I will do the same in my reading. When it comes to reading I can read something over and over until I understand. But with listening no one is going repeat something 10 times. I have to make my son repeat me for him to understand and that’s when I realized that he’s not listening also I say it again and make him repeat that. We’re working on it together… But I’m still concerned about it because I don’t understand it. I have other recent cognitive impairments that recently onset. If you have any studies or other links please share them. I don’t even know where to go to find out what’s goin on.

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