The difference between IQ and executive functioning

When I first began to learn about being a foster parent to someone with an alcohol related disability I was in constant conflict with myself.  I was standing in front of a young man who looks normal, talks normal and seems to have normal intelligence for his age – so, what’s the problem!?

Then I heard this: “I’m leaving this place as soon as my birthday hits in a couple of weeks…I’m going to get my own place.” I heard  this again, again and again.  I got really nervous.   Here I am, a new foster parent and I am going to fail a few weeks into this.   I thought maybe I could talk him out of it, but that only seemed to make it worse.  It was at that moment that I could feel the hair on my head turning grey and all the while, he wasn’t going anywhere

There is a constant consensus out there that intelligence is all about your IQ.  WRONG! Little did I know that there is another IQ:  your functioning IQ or your executive functioning (EF). Your executive what?  Your functioning IQ or executive functioning goes a little something like this : Your IQ is what you know and your functioning IQ is what you do with that information.  If you have good EF then you have the ability be a good grown up.  Andrew Rosenzweig, MD‘s definition of executive functioning is, “the ability to carry out familiar tasks such as getting dressed or balancing a checkbook.  Executive functioning includes the ability to plan projects, formulate goals and objectives, prioritize, apply self-discipline, and remember steps involved in complex tasks.”

Really?  Now, that’s was my AHA moment!

People with FASD often have normal IQ’s so they know a lot but in most cases they have horrible executive functioning.   What does this mean?  This means they can’t do anything with the information that they have. They don’t have the ability to make a plan and execute it.

So, let’s look at my foster boys’ scenario again –
What would he have to do to move out:

1. Earn an income
2. Save Money
3. Find a place
4. Organize his transition, ie. Make appointments, look at units, call people back, etc.

Now, this is just a quick example and in fact there are a lot more steps to moving out and getting your own place, but because of his executive functioning deficit and without tons of help and guidance, even beginning step one is difficult.  So, this is what I learned and continue to learn.

Armed with my new knowledge, when my foster child said to me next time that he was going to move out, I told him I would support him in whatever he wanted to do.  He immediately went upstairs to look for apartments online.  It didn’t take long before he was cursing at the computer like a sailor because he didn’t understand.   He understood what he had to do, but he was frustrated because he didn’t know how to do it.  So, it’s like a having a brand new car in the driveway , but without any keys or a license.

And then before he knew it, a cartoon that was playing on the TV grabbed his attention and he was gone.  It was only a matter of time before he told me again that he was moving out and this time I tried my new routine.  It worked. He hasn’t gone anywhere.

So the next time we get angry with our kids for not completing a task that seems simple to us, remember, it’s not so simple for them.  You wouldn’t get mad at someone in a wheelchair for not walking would you?

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