Executive Functioning Issues in Teens with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

While there has been a significant body of research investigating the physical effects of prenatal alcohol exposure, there has been less focus on the neurological impact of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, including executive functioning issues and learning differences. Instead, children with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome are more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD or Autism Spectrum Disorder, when the underlying cause of these symptoms may be better attributed to prenatal alcohol exposure. 

Understanding the bigger picture of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome can help teens receive appropriate support. 

Why Is It Important to Assess the Root of Executive Functioning Issues?

Executive functions refer to a broad range of cognitive processes aimed at achieving goal-directed behavior, from cognitive flexibility and problem-solving to working memory and processing speed. Executive functioning issues are implicated in several neurodevelopmental disorders and learning disorders, including ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorder, dyslexia, Traumatic Brain Injuries, and Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. 

While similar areas of executive functioning are affected by all of these neurodevelopmental disorders and there is significant variability within groups, understanding the root cause of executive functioning issues can help teens and their families discover learning strategies that accommodate their unique needs. 

The high association between fetal alcohol syndrome and learning disabilities can make it difficult for FAS to be accurately diagnosed, as specific learning disorders may be more easily identifiable due to the underreporting of prenatal alcohol exposure. Unlike other learning differences where teens may have unique learning styles, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome is often associated with lower IQ scores. Furthermore, while other neurodevelopmental disorders may become less pervasive over time as social and academic demands lessen, people with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome may continue to experience obstacles through adulthood.

Executive Functioning in Teens with Pre-Natal Substance Exposure

Communication Skills. One of the most noticeable areas where teens with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome struggle is with social communication. While they may not be withdrawn from others, they have a hard time with functional communication skills, including trouble maintaining conversation, answering questions, staying on topic, and using receptive and expressive language. With other neurodevelopmental disorders, impaired communication skills are usually explained by trouble with nonverbal cues and working memory.

Cognitive Flexibility. Many teens with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome are seen as stubborn and have trouble understanding different ways of reacting to situations. In teens on the Autism Spectrum, this is conceptualized as difficulties with rigid processing. One main difference found through meta-analyses is that teens with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome struggle more with encoding information and shifting attention while teens with Autism Spectrum Disorder struggle more with hyperfocusing attention and filtering out irrelevant information.

Behavior Inhibition. Teens with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome are more likely than teens with ADHD or Autism Spectrum Disorder to show low levels of activity in the part of their brain responsible for problem-solving and decision making. While teens with ADHD and Autism Spectrum Disorder may show more activity in their prefrontal cortex, their decision-making process is more influenced by lower levels of connectivity with emotional areas of their brain that tend to function independently of decision making, leading to problems with carrying out goals. In general, teens with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome tend to be more responsive to direction from others, but just have trouble forming personal goals and planning actions.

 Residential treatment centers for teens that work with teens with a wide range of neurodevelopmental disorders understand how executive functioning issues can affect social and emotional learning, not just classroom learning. These specialized programs offer life coaching and academic support to help teens with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome become more confident and independent. 

New Focus Academy Can Help 

New Focus Academy is a residential treatment center for boys ages 12-18 who struggle with neurodevelopmental disorders, and learning disorders such as Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. The program utilizes positive reinforcement to increase the student’s self-esteem and independence. Our academic program teaches Utah’s Common Core Curriculum with a focus on Essential Elements, such as life skills, functional math and language arts skills, community-based living skills, and social-emotional skills.  The skills they learn at New Focus will help them learn to have positive social interaction, organization, and improve their self-management. Students are given the opportunity to gain the confidence they need to foster and maintain healthy relationships and lifestyle habits.

For more information, call 844-313-6749. We can help your family today!