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.