What is Executive Functioning and How Autism Affects It

Executive functioning is critical to our independence as an adult, and most of us are not aware that we possess it.

It is comprised of cognitive and mental abilities that help us regulate, control, and manage our thoughts and actions. We use these abilities every day of our lives to plan and reach goals, prioritize, manage time, and to take care of ourselves and our possessions. This can be a marked challenge for people on the spectrum.

How Autism Affects Executive Functioning

Some sources report that up to 80% of people on the autism spectrum have some form of executive function disorder. At the core, executive functioning utilizes the ability to link past experiences with “in-the-moment” decision making, which is an area that autistic children often struggle with but can learn to achieve and continue developing. 

Individuals with executive dysfunction typically lack acquired motivation to achieve goals and prepare for normal events in day to day to life, and they often have difficulty picking up on skills such as organization, planning, and reasoning without guided and focused learning experiences.

Our objective is to teach parents how to guide their autistic child while being aware of and addressing executive dysfunction.

Executive functioning can look distinctly different from child to child on the autism spectrum. Some autistic children may have the ability to notice and remember particular small details, while they struggle with sequencing their thoughts and appear to have a short attention span. 

Others have trouble shifting from one thought to another. This may appear as stubbornness, as the child struggles with letting go of a thought or concept that they are still processing which can prevent them from moving on and thinking about something new.

Related: Independence IS Possible on the Spectrum

Here is an example of how executive dysfunction may affect a child on the autism spectrum: 

-Imagine that you are a child. Your parent asks you to pick up the toys that are scattered around your bedroom.

-You forget what you are supposed to do as you head to your bedroom. 

-You cannot remember where your toys belong as you pick them up (except you can remember a precise detail—the red cars belong on the checkered shelf). 

-Your brother volunteers to team up with you, but you have difficulty following his instructions. He is not guiding you. He is not showing you what to do step by step. He is not saying, “Here, watch what I do. Follow after me.” Instead, he is telling you what to do and each directive piles up, one on top of the other—jumbling in your head.

-You begin to feel upset or frustrated. You have trouble controlling your impulses and regulating your behavior. The room does not get cleaned. You are confused. You head into what looks like a tantrum and it goes into a full meltdown because you see no way to regulate otherwise. 

How the Parent Guide Can Maneuver Executive Functioning in Autism

There are several practical ways to help your child’s executive functioning. Here are some examples: 

Visual tools can teach organization.

Using the example above, create a picture or drawing of a child picking up their toys. Make a visual of where the toys belong, and then create a picture of the result…the tidy room! As the parent guide, it is especially helpful to use visual tools to teach your child where specific items belong…have a “correct” landing place for everything. 

Breaking the project down into smaller parts.

Breaking down big (or even small!) projects is another way to help your child with planning or reasoning. If they are confused by cleaning an entire room, guide them to pick up some of their toys. “Here, watch me. I’ll pick up the yellow toys first.” Then move on to the red toys, or the books, or the blue cars. 

This guides your child to learn how to complete a larger task by planning and breaking it down into smaller chunks. This helps your child reach the end goal through manageable steps that help to reduce feelings of overwhelm.

Avoid stepping in and completing tasks yourself.

Your child will build upon the skills that they learn as they complete daily tasks in life, such as emptying the dishwasher. Your child will gain awareness of their situation or environment (i.e. where each dish belongs and how to handle them safely), and they will learn how to manage emotions as the task is completed without frustration. This motivates your child to learn that much more and seek growth.

Everyday activities can be guided with a focus on self-regulation such as awareness, restraint, working memory, emotions, motivation, planning, and problem-solving. Many of these functions interact with each other, so success in one area builds upon another.

Related: RDI®️️ At Home, A Reciprocal Pattern

Patience, Time, and Clarity

There is no single program or plan that will help children with every piece of executive functioning, but you are the perfect one to lay the building blocks in your child’s home environment. As you gain clarity into the area(s) where your child may need guidance and teaching experiences, you will naturally include and expand the focus on these areas in your daily activities. 

As a person that wants to accomplish and achieve success in life, you may feel overwhelmed and frustrated in your role as a parent of an autistic child. Do not be too hard on yourself!

Remember that your child can learn through everyday life experiences, and you can always choose the time and place for guiding. Knowing that you have the freedom to do this, that you can shift, will help you guide your child with patience and time management. 

You do not have to do this alone. Our online learning community is designed for parents to find connection and support with others, with access to the most current resources, and an open door to reach out for professional consultation if additional help is needed. 


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