Have you ever heard of executive functioning? You may already be familiar with what it is but didn’t know that it had a specific term. But what about executive functioning and autism? What is the connection here? Often, an individual will have difficulties in this area. So let’s dive into this parent’s guide to executive functioning.
What is executive functioning?
Think of executive functioning as the epicenter of your brain. Or the place where you organize all of your thoughts.
This is where you:
- Plan and prioritize
- Access working memory
- Problem solve
- Multi task (though not always well)
And it’s with executive functioning that we are able to use verbal reasoning, develop time management strategies, and direct our attention where we need it to go.
In short, executive functioning helps us to solve our problems, plan, and control emotions and behaviors throughout the day.
Why do individuals with autism have difficulties with executive functioning?
For individuals with autism, executive functioning difficulties may affect the following:
- Have difficulty with seeing the bigger picture
- Have difficulty with following multi-step directions
- Have difficulty with planning or organizing their time
- Have difficulty with transitioning between activities or tasks
- Have difficulties working on a team
There are several ways to help with executive functioning difficulties including, but not limited to:
- Assistive technology such as checklists, visual schedules, or color coded information
- Students may benefit by sitting closer to a teacher or having a 1:1 aide to keep them on track
- When faced with a large project, it may be helpful to break it down into more manageable pieces (we could all benefit from this every so often though)
Executive functioning strategies and accommodations can also be included in your child’s IEP or 504 plan.
How executive functioning affects self-regulation
Individuals who have difficulties with executive functioning may also run into issues with self-regulation. Self regulation is a larger set that includes executive functioning, willpower, willful control, emotional regulation, self-control, and self-management.
So how do we help children who have difficulties with these areas?
First, we can look at the skills needed for self-regulation and their motivation (internal and external) to self-regulate. Caregiver support from parents and teachers helps to strengthen a child’s self-regulation skills and provides them with a safe space to process.
We can also help with adapting their environment to limit the number of external stressors or factors that may hinder their ability to self-regulate.
So, as you can see, when a child can properly self-regulate, they are able to function better. And that goes for all children, not just children on the autism spectrum.