Executive Function in College Students on the Autism Spectrum

Friday, May 16, 2014
Atrium Ballroom (Marriott Marquis Atlanta)
S. M. Ryan1, S. Eldred2, H. Noble2, A. B. Barber2 and A. T. Gilpin1, (1)Psychology, University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, AL, (2)University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, AL

Little is known about the characteristics of students with an ASD entering college or what factors significantly impact their transition. Of particular interest are executive function (EF) skills, which have been shown to be impaired in children and adolescents with an ASD (Hill, 2004). Specifically, previous studies show that as children with ASD age, EF improves overall, but worsens compared to same age peers (Rosenthal et al., 2013).  


The purpose of the current project is to: 1.) Establish a database for the long-term study of social, emotional, behavioral, academic, and EF outcomes in individuals with HFA at a major public university; 2.) Examine the characteristics of a sample of students with an ASD diagnosis who are entering college, focusing primarily on EF skills, for the purpose of documenting strengths and weaknesses that may impact the college transition.


The current study includes 5 students from a college transition and support program for degree-seeking students with an ASD diagnosis at a major public university. As part of the program, students meet 2-3 times per week with a therapist-mentor, attend 4 hours of study hall, and participate in regular group meetings. Each student is administered a battery of measures at summer orientation and toward the end of each Fall and Spring semesters during their college career. The battery of measures includes parent-report measures (i.e., the BRIEF, SRS, and a daily living skills measure developed by the program), self-report measures (i.e., the BASC-2, STAI, BDI-II, SRS, Brief Multidimensional Life Satisfaction Measure, and the Student Adjustment to College Questionnaire), information provided as part of the application process (i.e., previous testing, high school/community college GPA), and current GPA. 


Preliminary analyses completed on the first cohort entering college in 2012  (n = 5) indicated a  mean Full Scale IQ of 118. SRS scores confirm significant social difficulty (mean total SRS score = 74.75). Overall, students reported at-risk levels of difficulty in the areas of Atypicality (mean T-score=61.80) and Hyperactivity (mean=61.80), as well as at-risk levels of concern regarding self-reliance (mean=35.60). The results of the BRIEF indicated significant difficulty in the areas of metacognition and behavior regulation ( mean T-scores : 63.8 and 64.6, respectively). Specifically, the greatest difficulty appeared on the shift subscale (mean=66.4), the initiate subscale (mean=71), and the plan/organize subscale (mean=64.8). Data for an additional 3-5 students will be added over the next few months. Correlations on the larger sample will be used to examine what, if any, impact EF has on social skills, anxiety, and academic performance.


Overall, these results highlight the unique difficulties faced by students with HFA on a college campus. Despite above average intelligence these students experience significant social and EF difficulty relative to the general population. These difficulties are most apparent in the areas of task initiation, organization, and shifting attention, all of which can cause significant difficulty in the absence of the structure of the home and high school environments. The exact nature of this relationship will be the subject of future longitudinal analysis.