It is important to note that executive functioning issues affect learning styles and study skills rather than intelligence in teens with Autism Spectrum Disorder. In fact, many teens with Autism Spectrum Disorder are highly intelligent, but have difficulties with organizing their thoughts and communicating them directly. This is related to overactivity in certain areas of their brain and underdeveloped networks between the emotional and rational areas of their brain, not their capacity for learning. Below, we discuss the neurological profile of teens on the autism spectrum and associated executive functioning issues. 

Please keep in mind that as Autism is a Spectrum Disorder, there is significant variability between these categories. 

What are Executive Functions?

Executive functions refer to a broad range of cognitive processes aimed at achieving goal-directed behavior, from cognitive flexibility and problem-solving to working memory and processing speed. Executive functioning issues are implicated in several neurodevelopmental disorders and learning disorders, including Autism Spectrum Disorder and ADHD. Understanding executive functioning offers neuropsychologists a brain map to work with that gives them insight into how students’ brains are wired and connected.

At Seven Stars, we utilize two kinds of assessments, Formal and Functional to better understand how executive functioning issues affect an individual’s daily life. Successful treatment of these intimately interconnected problems is only accomplished through a sophisticated and coordinated understanding of the whole person, taking into account all mental, social and behavioral factors, rather than just a particular disorder, behavior, or symptom.

Our formal assessments include psychological and neuropsychological evaluations, pragmatic language assessments with a Speech and Language Pathologist, auditory processing assessments with an Audiologist, and sensory processing assessments with an Occupational Therapist. Functional assessments evaluate how these executive functioning issues affect one’s academic performance, social skills, and understanding of emotional and therapeutic needs and response to individual, group, and milieu interventions.

Features of Executive Functioning in Teens on the Spectrum

  • Inhibition. This executive function relates to the ability to control impulses, using attention and reasoning. One study suggests that limited inhibition skills may explain social deficits and repetitive behaviors in teens on the autism spectrum. During tasks set up to measure this executive function, teens with ASD showed increased activation in the planning part of their brain, the prefrontal cortex, while the control group also showed activation in multiple areas of the brain that processed sensory information. This suggests that teens with autism are more likely to make “informed” decisions based on limited information.
  • Cognitive Flexibility. Rigid processing is one of the key features of Autism Spectrum Disorder. Individuals with ASD sometimes have difficulty flipping from one point of view to another, from a “big picture” perspective to a “close up,” considering multiple perspectives, and adjusting plans when something changes. This is demonstrated in the above study, where the brain struggles to filter relevant information and integrate multiple perspectives.
  • Visual Working Memory. Another study suggests that struggling to process visual cues may explain missing nonverbal social cues, like body language, and difficulties with abstract thinking. This may also play a role in why teens with autism are more likely to think concretely and find it easier to take notes in the classroom than rely on their memory alone.
  • Planning. As teens on the spectrum struggle with abstract thinking and rigid processing, they also experience difficulties with planning ahead and anticipating the results of their decisions. However, difficulties in this area decrease over time, as they practice this skill. To some degree, it is unrealistic to expect people to always be thinking ahead, as so much is outside of an individual’s control. But for teens with autism, being able to plan ahead reduces their anxiety about the unknown and is affected by their organizational skills.
  • Verbal fluency. This executive function is influenced by a variety of factors. Some children on the autism spectrum experience delayed language skills, which is usually attributed to limited exposure to new vocabulary due to social isolation from peers. Anxiety and auditory processing issues also contribute to difficulties initiating and sustaining conversations where this skill can be developed. On the other hand, many teens with autism become avid readers as opposed to conversationalists, where they may develop this skill in a different way. However, they may lack social etiquette when sharing this information, as they tend to have problems with interrupting others or launching into monologues without hearing another person’s point of view.

Understanding that there is significant variability between these categories in terms of how these executive functioning issues affect a teen’s behavior and interactions can provide a blueprint for treatment planning focused on the bigger picture rather than the smaller details. Seven Stars uses principles of positive psychology to praise students’ strengths in these areas as well as help them identify personal goals that they want to work towards while at the program. 

Seven Stars Can Help 

Seven Stars is a residential treatment center for teens ages 13-17 struggling with Autism-related issues. The program provides acute care stabilization, residential treatment, academic programs, adventure-based therapy, skill-building, and positive psychology. These various programs and therapies help students to improve their confidence, self-awareness, and personal management. Seven Stars provides students with individualized access to the resources they need to transition to the real-world practicing healthier habits and self-control. 

For more information about Seven Stars RTC, call 844-601-1167. We can help your family today!