GPS for the English Classroom: Understanding Executive Dysfunction in Secondary Students with Autism

Article excerpt

Imagine you are Bear Grylls (the "Man vs. Wild" adventurer on the Discovery Channel), and you have found yourself (once again) stranded in the wilderness. It's 15 degrees below freezing, you're wearing Bermuda shoits, and the only thing you have in your backpack is a bottle opener. Except you are not in fact Bear Grylls. You are youan English teacher, a grammarian, a linguist, a book nerd. You have read novels about the wilderness and maybe even been camping. But even if you are the outdoorsy type, it is unlikely that you have the necessary skills to know which "bug burger" to eat for endurance. You need a survival guide, a manual of some sort, a map. Better yet, you need a Global Positioning System (GPS) to guide you to safety. Now assume thL· analogy holds true for a student with autism. Your English classroom is the Badlands, and your student has been abandoned- a GPS is needed, and you can help create one.

First Stop: Understanding Autism

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is the name given to a group of pervasive developmental disorders characterized by impairment in three core areas of function: language, social interactions, and behavior. Educators need to identify and integrate purposeful interventions in inclusive, general education classrooms for their students with "high-functioning autism"- frequently applied to people who demonstrate the three core deficits of ASD but show average or above average intellectual function.

This article identifies instructional strategies that capitalize on the cognitive strengths of students with ASD by exploring the executive-dysfunction theory of ASD (Hill, 2004; Ozonoff & Schetter, 2007). Here, we focus on the middle/secondary English classroom where students are often in inclusive settings with a general education teacher.

The Driving Issue: Executive Function

Let's look at executive function overall-as metacognition, the ability to think about one's thinking, followed by orchestration. This ability reflects the complex process of strategically planning and then using specific cognitive skills to carry out some set of thoughts or behaviors (Femandez-Duque, Baird, & Posner, 2000) . Some professionals have described executive function as the chief executive officer of the brain or the conductor of an orchestra (Brown, 2000) . We like to think of it as the brain's complicated GPS instrument. Students with executive dysfunction may experience difficulty with memory, processing, attention, transitions, set-shifting, social behavior, selfmonitoring, and modifying motor output and altering performance based on feedback (Cox, n.d.; see Table 1). For success in life, executive functions in multiple domains are critical in areas such as learning, social interactions, adapting to novel situations, and planning, as well as executing sets of behaviors. A lack of effective executive functioning may result in greater difficulty in the school environment.

Seeing executive dysfunction as a hallmark feature of ASD is not new; however, attempting to directly intervene in underlying executive dysfunction is a new idea. Although there is a time and place for behavioral interventions for children with ASD, educators do this population of students a disservice if they ignore cognitive aspects of ASD. For example, new imaging technology has suggested frontal lobe involvement, both in ASD and in executive dysfunction (e.g., Ozonoff et al., 2004; Rudy, 2007). People with ASD demonstrate many executive function deficits that affect their ability to fully engage in a productive life (Hill, 2004). We need more investigations of variables that mediate or moderate executive function- and how to address them. For instance, there is evidence that anxiety has a negative effect on executive function (Airaksinen, Larsson, & Forsell, 2005); interestingly, people diagnosed with ASD show significantly elevated levels of anxiety (Thede & Coolidge, 2007). Perhaps by reducing students' anxiety in the classroom (e. …