The Autistic College Student and Executive Dysfunction

An except from Twirling Naked in the Streets and No-One Noticed…

My first semester at John Jay College of Criminal Justice went as smoothly as I could expect. I had no problems with the academics and had straight A’s across the board—easy peasy. But what I did not have was any college friends. For the most part I didn’t mind, I was living back at home after joining another family didn’t work out, and I worked two jobs. Life was busy, and that hid the fact that I was alone.

A full course load at John Jay only took up two weekdays. The remaining three I spent working as a bank teller. On the weekends I worked at catering hall as a cocktail waitress.  I was determined to not have to live back home for very long.

I had trouble staying focused and interested. I majored in Forensic Science, but Chemistry didn’t hold my interest.  So I transferred to St. John’s University in Staten Island where I took several English and creative writing and psychology classes.

Girls all around me where pledging for sororities.  They walked in groups, ate lunch together, and basically kept away from me. I only attracted the attention of boys, this act I already had down pat. Despite the attention I focused on my studies, but St. John’s only outlasted John Jay by one semester.

St. John’s was also a bigger challenge than John Jay. Not because of the academics, because I found the coursework to be more difficult at John Jay, but because the campus was larger. I had a recurrence of my first experience with junior high school and place-blindness.  The additional stress from constantly being lost and late for class contributed to my dropping out of college after a total of three semesters. My brain was perpetually overloaded.

Although, I managed to keep straight A’s during these semesters, it took so much work on my part that I was completely and utterly burned out. The course load and my growing responsibilities overcame me. I could not keep two thoughts together in a row in my mind.

Part of what made college so exhausting was my proneness to get lost in the details. One detail of a lesson, lecture, assignment, or test question would grab my focus and I would lose sight of the whole picture. If one word was wrong in a sentence or oddly placed, I was so consumed by that one small detail that I completely lost sight of what the text said making me have to go back and re-read the entire thing. I could not stay focused.

I suspect that my autism bubbled up to the surface highlighting many of the core deficits that those with Asperger’s Syndrome (AS), Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), and High-Functioning Autism (HFA) share. I clearly had severe deficits with Theory of Mind, but college life made my weak central coherence and executive dysfunction noticeable.

Central coherence is the ability to focus on both details as well as wholes. People with autism appear to have a heightened focus on details rather than wholes, a cognitive style termed ‘weak central coherence’. Compounding the problem was my inability to complete tasks, stick with a plan, and work towards a long term goal. I struggled with the sequencing needed to complete the more complex tasks that working your way through college required—an example of executive dysfunction.

Executive function pertains to the way in which people monitor and control their thoughts and actions, which includes processes like working memory, planning, cognitive flexibility, and inhibitory control. Executive function is responsible for your skills and ability to goal, plan, sequence, prioritize, organize, initiate, inhibit, pace, shift, self-monitor, emotional control, and completing.

When a person with autism is experience executive dysfunction, they experience impairment or deficits in the higher-order processes that enable us to plan, sequence, initiate, and sustain our behaviors towards some goal, incorporating feedback and making adjustments along the way.  My constant failure to complete was evident in everything I tried to accomplish.  It spilled over from my school life, to my personal life, and right into my adult working life.

I had tremendous difficulty trying to figure out what was wrong with me, why I could never seem to finish anything I started.  Shifting activities was a challenge, and I was terrible at pacing myself.  I had two speeds—full speed ahead, and stop; there was never anything in between—all or nothing.

My father thought my going to college was stupid; that I was wasting my time and his money only to learn nonsense. He said all I needed was street smarts of which I had none, and college was not going to teach me that. Maybe he saw the dysfunction that I did not, or maybe he saw something that he could not describe. But maybe he could have described me as something other than—stupid.

Going to college was stupid; I was stupid; all my ideas, thoughts, and dreams were stupid, and something to be mocked, something to be laughed at—a joke.   A joke that I did not think it was funny.

Financial aid didn’t cover the additional tuition expenses that transferring to St. John’s University brought, so in addition to my aid, and loans, I needed my father to sign for a parent’s loan. He did for the first semester, whining and complaining how it was a waste of time. But after that he refused and if I wanted to continue the finances were my problem.

He never repaid that parent loan, and a few years later the IRS confiscated his income tax return to repay the debt. Would you believe my mother brought it up again—21 years later? Remarking how I wasted money on something I never finished.

Being a college failure, and now a drop-out, I was thrust into the adult working world.  Surely, with my intelligence, and bubbly smile I would be successful there.


8 thoughts on “The Autistic College Student and Executive Dysfunction

  1. I am sorry you had such a difficult experience in college and even sorrier that your parents were and still are so unsupportive. But you know what,you don’t need their approval or support anymore. From your bio you are a happily married mother of three. You are a success 🙂 Now if there is a local community college start taking classes or go on line if you want an education. It is never too late.

    • Thank you so much for your encouraging words of support. I appreciate them! I am currently working on my B.A. in English at Southern New Hampshire University (online), and although not a walk in the park by any means, things are going well.

      Even as an adult though, I do still have AS related difficulties that are cropping up with my current school course load, but now I am better equipped to handle them…(I hope) 🙂

    • I am too! But of course now I am taking courses again just to torture myself. Just kidding, I am taking coursing, but doing them online, which for the most part has been going well–so far.

  2. Hi, i am glad to haver read this post. I went through a similar situation. Even though i could complete the bachelor’s, it was always a struggle against myself.

    I was diagnosed 2 years ago, while trying hard to finish my master’s, and now i am trying to convince my research advisor that i am not stupid. I want to make him see that my lack of expression on my face and my slowness towards completing tasks aren’t because i don’t understand. It’s hard and it makes you really angry when people around you think you just aren’t intelligent enough.

    Well this is a long story, thanks again for your post, i feel like i am not alone.

    • Thanks for reading Victor, you are most certainly not alone in this. I know it makes me angry as well when I am slow to complete things because I know it is not because I do not understand. In fact, I find myself thinking that others are stupid most of the time because I learn and understand more quickly than most. But learning and understanding is not all there is to it now, is it? If that was it I would be a superstar, but the application of knowledge and completing is a huge problem for me. I am hoping that by blogging this book, and having others provide feedback as you have done here will (and is) helping me greatly–helping push me, keep me motivated, and keep me moving towards my goal. Thank you.

  3. You may never know how many people you have encouraged and helped just by articulating what it is like to navigate through these life-passages such as college, jobs, with everyone expecting things from you which don’t come naturally or easily. So much work and effort goes into doing what others seem to be able to do without even thinking about it. I can imagine how exhausting that is. When I was younger (48 now) I was more “neurotypical” but suffered from undiagnosed sleep disorders. As a result, I have lost some of those abilities that previously had come naturally. I can recognize in your descriptions that poor central coeherence (is that what you called it?) is something I now struggle with, where once I was able to juggle a lot of things and now I can’t. I describe it like when you open too many “pages” on your computer, and you forget to go back to those and finish what you were doing on that page, and eventually it crashes from trying to run so much. I used to work as an RN and keep that type of “running list” in my head all day long, now I am completely unable to do that. I also have those sensory issues, which at one time were so bad I couldn’t stand for anyone to touch me. Even breezy days bothered me. I am not trying to say I can understand totallly what it is like for you, but I actually can relate to some of the things you are describing and I think it probably has to do with changes that have taken place in my brain over many years of the undiagnosed sleep problem. Now that the sleep disorder is being treated, some of these things have slightly improved, but I don’t think that it will ever get completely better. I am very easily overwhelmed, although that goes way back to childhood.

    I have wondered if there really is an actual “end” to the autism spectrum, or whether like the light spectrum, there is just a place where it goes “ultraviolet”, and thus not “visible to the naked eye”. Not to minimize the struggle of those who deal very much with the issues of being “on the spectrum”. I just tend to think that “normal” doesn”t really exist.

    • Thank you for this! I often feel I am rambling on into the unknown and wondering why I am doing this, and who really cares or would want to read my babbling at all. Then, I get a beautiful comment like yours and remember that this is EXACTLY why, so that others know that there are people out here that understand (although you may have to really search for us).

      I don’t doubt that sleep deprevation would cause many sensory and cognitive issues. The brain needs sleep to function! Sometimes I wonder about autism and its link to insomnia…I know when I go through a long stretch of sleep difficulties my sensitivites go into overdrive.

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