The difference between IQ and executive functioning

FASDMy Aha! Moment

What did I learn about FASD that has made the biggest difference in my care giving style? The difference between IQ and executive functioning.

Once you learn this lesson you will be light years ahead, I’m sure of it.

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.  Man.  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?


Call to action!

With your new knowledge of executive functioning, will you approach persons with FASD differently? What are your thoughts?


Source: Executive Functioning
By Andrew Rosenzweig, MD, Guide


Making Sense of the Madness: An FASD Survival Guide.

You will learn how to:

  • Increase your FASD understanding and decrease your frustration
  • Sharpen your advocacy skills and strengthen your support network
  • Be a happier, more balanced and confident FASD Caregiver


  1. My AHA moment was when I learned that my foster child NEEDED three naps a day and that there was nothing wrong with the amount of time she slept. I used to feel guilty because she seemed to be sleeping or napping ALL of the time. Then came to realize that because her brain works so much harder then a typical child any amount of stimulation quickly tired her out. I went from feeling guilty about how many naps she took, to happy that she did sleep when she needed it and that the amount of time she slept was totally healthy for her.

  2. I adopted my son when he was 2 1/2 years old. We knew birthmom had used cocaine but she’d denied alcohol use. My son has since been diagnosed with PDD-NOS(autism),ADHD, DevelopmentalCoordination Disorder,etc., etc., but FASD has always on the back burner with the specialists because birthmom denied the actual alcohol. My son is now 15 years old and having many successes along with his daily challenges. Your AHA MOMENT is a perfect choice for the intro to your site. It clarifies and simplifies some of the challenges our kids face every day.

  3. I am in the adoption process of two of my foster children, both diagnosed with FAS. The 11-year-old definitely struggles with activities of daily living, has behavior issues at school and here at home, etc., and his 13-year-old sister is just plain slow at everything she does. This is my first exposure to children with FAS and it’s relatively new to me. Thank you for sharing your Aha! Moment with us. It was very informative and put some things in perspective for me. You are truly an inspiration!

  4. I’m autistic, not FASD, but I also struggle a lot with executive function. I have an IQ of 136, but I can’t study without someone helping me, find taking the bus to university more challenging than actually understanding the lecture, and have been known to get so focused on something that I realize it’s 1pm and I haven’t eaten all day!

    I really wish more people understood executive function and what it means. As a child, everyone thought I was lazy and didn’t care, when in fact I couldn’t do what they wanted from me.

    One thing I’ve found really interesting, that took me by surprise, is evidence that not only can disabilities like autism or FASD affect executive function – early childhood trauma can as well. When you’re in fight-or-flight, your frontal lobes (which handle executive functions) get less blood flow, while the limbic system (which handles emotions) gets more. Some theorists believe that if a young child goes into fight-or-flight a lot, this can actually cause their frontal lobes to be underdeveloped, and their limbic system overdeveloped. It’s an interesting thought for kids with FASD, given how many of them have been traumatized as well.

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