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Primary Characteristics of FASD—Slow Processing Pace

Updated: Jul 19, 2023

What were you thinking? Why would you do that? Why didn’t you finish everything I told you to do? Questions like these flew out of my mouth on a daily basis many years ago. Usually, the only answer I got from my equally frustrated kid was a blank stare, shoulder shrug, or “I don’t know.”

So what’s going on here?

I don’t ask these what or why questions anymore (though sometimes I catch myself thinking them). Now I know what I didn’t know back then—my kids have a slow processing pace because they were exposed to alcohol in the womb.

Information processing is the brain’s ability to take in information, make sense of it, and respond to it.

Childhood trauma and prenatal exposure to alcohol impact the brain’s

ability to make sense of the information it’s taking in. This means our kids

might hear what is said, they might even repeat it back, but it doesn’t mean

they understand or are able to appropriately respond.

Slow Processing Pace:

When an individual has a slower processing pace they have difficulty when too much information is presented to them—too many words coming at them too quickly. For example, if you verbally give a list of instructions, the individual will miss much of it.

A slower processing pace affects a person’s ability to:

  • Multi-task

  • Follow multi-step directions

  • Take notes in a classroom

  • Take tests

  • Keep up in conversations

If parents, caregivers, school teachers, or even employers do not take the slow processing pace into consideration, our children will become frustrated. Over time their frustration will lead to irritability, stress, anger, or rage—all of which are secondary symptoms of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD).

Accommodations for Slower Processing:

As parents and caregivers, we must be trauma and FASD-informed so we can adequately accommodate our kids for success. Here are four ways we can better support someone with a slower processing pace:

  1. Avoid lecturing & Punishment

  2. Give one-step directions

  3. Use simple scripts

  4. Accommodate & Advocate

Avoid Lecturing and Punishment:

For years I lectured my children as a form of correction. While it worked at times with my neuro-typical kids, it never worked with my prenatally exposed kids. In fact, lectures were a big waste of time because people with FASD only catch about every third word they hear in a barrage of information.

For example, when our child comes home from school and we tell them, “Change your clothes, bring your backpack to the table, I’ll get you a snack, you can do your homework and then you can go play.” A few minutes later when we return with the snack, what is our child doing? Probably playing.

At that point we launch into a lecture, "I said you can have a snack and do your homework, then you can play! Because you didn’t do as you were told, now no video games after dinner!” Both parent and child end up frustrated.

Let’s take a closer look. What was the last thing we told the child to do? Go play. This means we just punished our child when they actually did obey us. Typically, the last bit of what we say is what they catch and remember. We can skip the lecture and punishment—and the frustration, by giving one-step directions.

One-Step Directions:

Giving one-step directions allows our child the opportunity to hear, process, and successfully complete a task. Using the above example, first, ask the child to bring their backpack to the table. When that task is completed, give the next step—let’s fix a snack together. Once the child and the snack are at the table, the next step is given—now let’s do your homework.

Give one simple direction at a time. List the next step only after the first is completed. Praise your child for each successful step. One-step directions will help prevent frustration and help build connections while allowing our child to experience success.

A note about homework—for some of our kids, homework is an inappropriate expectation. After trying to function at school all day, their brain might actually be too tired to perform the tasks necessary to complete more work. Advocating for no homework in your child’s IEP is an appropriate accommodation.

Use Simple Scripts:

Simple scripts are another great way to help our kids with slower processing pace. These one-liners need to be repeated frequently and we must always check for understanding.

One script I use with my seventeen-year-old is “Good Words. Good

boundaries.” My husband and I repeat this script before he goes anywhere:

school, church, youth group, etc.

At first, I was trying to teach our teen about appropriate vs. inappropriate.

He nodded his head in agreement as I explained the importance of using

appropriate words and what might be an inappropriate boundary. I was probably using too many words because when I asked if he knew what “appropriate” meant, the kid confidently stated, “No!”

While I explained what the words meant, I realized my son might not always remember the meaning. That’s when I came up with a simpler version—good words, good boundaries. This script is easy to understand

and remember—most of the time.

Accommodate and Advocate:

One-step directions and simple scripts are examples of accommodating for success. If your child has an IEP for school, advocate to have accommodations for slow processing pace included.

My boys IEP’s state that they need classroom notes provided. Note-taking is extremely difficult for someone with slower processing pace.

When the teacher is speaking and/or writing notes on a board, the child is listening and attempting to write or type what is being taught. Then the teacher moves on to the next bit of information while our child is still trying to process what was said moments ago. It’s a recipe for disaster.

Other helpful accommodations include extra time for tests, test questions read to the student, and tests taken in a quiet location.

My nineteen-year-old had an IEP for school. After graduation, he joined our local volunteer fire company. As part of his training, my son had to take a 12-week course. He was allowed testing accommodations as per his IEP.

Most of the course was hands-on which is one of my son’s strengths. But at the end of each unit was a multiple-choice test. Test questions and answer options were read to him and he passed all the tests—except the last one.

A different instructor read the questions and answers to my son; however, he read them much faster than the previous instructor. My son didn’t have time to consider which answer was correct before the teacher was on to the next question.

My boy came home frustrated. But he advocated for himself and was given permission to retake the test. This time, the instructor read the questions and answer options more slowly—and my son passed the test!


We all want our children to be successful and they want to do well too. If

our child was prenatally exposed to alcohol or other

drugs—accommodations will be necessary for success throughout their


Slow processing pace is a primary characteristic of FASD. By supporting

our child and providing appropriate accommodations, they will be less frustrated and more successful.


If you would like to learn more, check out my Adoption & Foster Care Journey podcast episode on FASD and Slow Processing Pace HERE. For more FASD resources including workshops and the Hope for the FASD Journey online support community visit

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