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Executive Function and Teenage Will


Executive functioning is the ability to plan and execute tasks. Organizing, following a set of directions, keeping track of time, and breaking down a project from conception to the fine details. These are some of the executive function deficits I have recognized in my son since he was very young.

Like most kids on the autism spectrum, my son struggles with daily routines and project management that require executive functioning skills. After many years, we have learned to rely on planners and calendars, timers, and visuals to help him complete morning routines and school assignments. Practice, maturity, and lots of patience have helped him develop the skills he needs.

Puberty... I cringe at how one developmental phase, a phase every one of us has lived through, can turn a household upside down. Hormones, growth spurts, and the struggle to be a child and an adult, all rolled into one awkward body. And the desire for independence... even when that desire does not always match the ability. This is where we are.

My son has always been academic-minded. He loves to learn (although he has not always loved school) and takes pride in his work. He has been in private school, Montessori school, public school, and home school and has benefited from several styles of teaching. He grasps new ideas quickly and loves to delve deeper into topics and learn more than is required. When he is truly interested in a subject, the results show how well he has prepared for a test or a project. But. Puberty.

The rubrics his teachers have sent home in middle school are phenomenal. A dream for those with executive function deficits! They break down the tasks, the big picture and the details. Expectations are clear. He has always allowed me to further break down the instructions or add pieces I know will help him better plan. I word the rubric or instructions in ways that work best with his skill set. That is how it has been. But. Puberty. The desire for independence.

Now that he is mostly grown and does not need a babysitter (sigh... his words), my guidance is appreciated less and less. "I know" and "I don't need your help" are common. I truly understand his need to succeed or fail on his own, but it is very difficult to balance that understanding with the knowledge that his executive functioning deficits do not necessarily align with that need. So I have tried to manage from a distance, reminding him to be sure to read the rubric thoroughly and double check that everything matches. Or triple check. Or... "Mom, I got it. Leave me alone."

Recently he spent 5 hours working on a poster for a Greek gods and goddesses project. High interest area, so lots of effort put in to the research, design, and execution. He was very proud of his work. The poster looked great. I mentioned the rubric two or three (probably four, okay?) times. "Mom, I got it. Leave me alone."

The grade he received on the project? A 33. An F. Wow. This is not typical for him and not something he happily accepted. He made excuses. He was upset. So we looked at the rubric. Well... 5 out of 5 points for creativity and layout. No doubt. The poster looked great, and he clearly spent a great deal of time on the detail. Then there were the zeros. Were the gods and goddesses labeled? No. Were the details of their stories included in the descriptions? No. Did the poster tell an overall story that explained the relationships between the gods and goddesses? Well... no. "But I didn't know I was supposed to do all that." Was it in the rubric? You know, the one I mentioned two or three (probably four, okay?) times? Of course. But. Puberty. The desire for independence.

So I can hope for an 'I told you so' moment. Or a lesson learned. Read the rubric, ask for assistance, double check the work. And part of me knows that F is going to affect him for a while and will be a great reminder about the importance of following the guidelines in the future. And part of me knows that... puberty. These hormones are going to be a battle between logic and desire for a long time. The teenage will can be stronger than rationale. The hormonal will of a teenager with Asperger's should probably be a research project by someone with a lot more education and patience than I have. In the meantime, I will keep trying and looking for guidance from those who have survived the parenting journey!
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Executive Functioning and Autism
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Content copyright © 2015 by Tara O´Gorman, MSW. All rights reserved.
This content was written by Tara O´Gorman, MSW. If you wish to use this content in any manner, you need written permission. Contact Tara O´Gorman, MSW for details.

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