This part 2 in a series about executive function. It looks at the remainder of the organizational functions that were introduced in part 1 : problem solving, verbal reasoning, working memory and attention.
Problem solving is another umbrella term, encompassing the activities related to identifying and overcoming obstacles to reach a predefined goal. Probably the most complex cognitive process that we engage in, it draws on nearly all of the other aspects of executive function.
Here is the traditional problem solving cycle, with related EF components in parentheses:
Identify the Problem (attention, initiation of action, monitoring of actions, working memory)
Define the Problem (cognitive flexibility, reasoning, working memory)
Form a Strategy (planning, reasoning, cognitive flexibility)
Organize Information (working memory, attention, reasoning)
Allocate Resources (planning, initiation of actions, inhibition, cognitive flexibility)
Monitor Progress (attention, working memory, monitoring of actions, inhibition)
For me, that list is missing a very critical step: Recognize That a Problem Exists. Because this is where I often run into trouble with problem solving. I’m pretty good at reasoning out solutions to a defined problem. Not so good at actually recognizing the presence of a problem. And that’s executive function too.
And again there is an ironic twist lurking under the surface here: when someone else is having a problem, what is the default autistic response? Fix it! Come up with a plan! Whether they want us to or not.
Thinking on Your Feet is a new test at Test My Brain. I was planning to do the creepy Face in the Branches test today but it’s no longer available. Instead I took Thinking on Your Feet, which isn’t an Asperger’s test but does test some of the cognitive areas that can be impacted by ASD.
Thinking on your Feet consists of three short tests:
Find the flickering dot: You’re shown a set of blue and yellow dots that flash intermittently and you have to find the dot that’s changing color. There are sixteen sets of dots.
Visual working memory: You’re briefly shown a set of four shapes arrayed around a plus (+) sign. The set disappears and one shape reappears. You press “s” if the shape is the same as the one you saw in that position in the set and “d” if it is different. There are 42 sets of shapes.
Visual reasoning: You’re shown a matrix of shapes and have to identify the “missing piece” from 5 possible choices. There are 35 matrices and they become increasingly difficult.
As I was taking the tests, they reminded me of some of the cognitive tests I took during my Asperger’s evaluation.
The first and third tests measure components of executive function: attention and working memory. Executive function is way of describing our brain’s command and control center. It encompasses things like planning, problem solving, and verbal reasoning as well as starting, stopping, switching and monitoring tasks. Many aspies, including me, have impaired executive function.
The second test–visual reasoning–relies on nonverbal reasoning. Many aspies excel at tasks requiring nonverbal reasoning, either because they think visually or are skilled at pattern recognition.
Working with those general assumptions, individuals on the spectrum are probably more likely to score above average on the second test and average or below average on the other two.
Taking the Test
First a warning:One section of this test has a set of colored dots that flash at a steady rate. The flashing isn’t rapid, but the dots are quite bright and you have to study them as they flash to find one that is different. Is this sounds like it may be uncomfortable or triggering for you, don’t take this test.
The test guidelines say it takes about 30 minutes to complete. I finished in a little over 20. The first and third tests go pretty quickly, but you may want to spend more time on the visual reasoning section, depending on how quickly you can solve the harder puzzles and how much you care about your score.
When you’re ready to give it a try, go to the Test My Brain site and click the Go! button next to the Thinking on Your Feet test. You’ll be asked to agree to the consent form and provide some demographic information (age, handedness, primary language, etc.) to help the researchers analyze the data they’re collecting via these tests. It’s all anonymous and you won’t be asked for any personally identifying data.
Before each section of the test, you’ll be given written directions as well as two practice trials to be sure you understand what to do. After the three tests are complete, you’ll be asked for your SAT scores. If you don’t remember them or never took the SAT you can skip this section. It has no impact on the results you receive.
Scoring the Test
You’ll get three separate scores. Here are mine:
Find the Flickering Dot: I got 14.63, which is a measure of the average number of screen flashes it took me to find the dot. The average score on this test is 20.53.
Visual Reasoning Test: I got 31 out of 35 correct. The average score is 25.76
Visual Working Memory: I got 37 out of 42 correct. The average score is 33.91.
If we assume that the scores are normally distributed, then scores that fall between the 25th and 75th percentile are in the average range of ability. Or to put it another way, if your blue guy is standing somewhere in the middle of the pack, your scores are average. If he’s standing in the first two or last positions, you’re above or below average.
For the flickering dot and visual working memory scores, my blue guy is standing in the middle six, which means I have average scores . On the visual reasoning test, my blue guy is in the second to last position, meaning I have an above average score.
I went back and looked at my ASD evaluation report to compare the results of the comparable cognitive tests with these and they’re quite similar. My scores were above average for perceptual reasoning and average for attention. I didn’t take a visual working memory test so I don’t have a direct comparison there. I did take two verbal working memory tests and my results were “impaired” on both, meaning my little blue guy was standing in the first position in line.
It’s no surprise to me that I scored better on visual working memory than verbal. My verbal cognitive test scores are poor across the board and I’m much more comfortable working from printed or visual material than from oral directions.
The Bottom Line
This set of tests is an interesting look at some of the cognitive elements that are thought to be ASD strengths and weaknesses.