Executive Functioning and Autism

Executive Functioning and Autism
Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) are separate and distinct. The signs, symptoms, and treatment are different, although there are overlapping features, and some children do carry diagnoses of both ASD and ADHD. A common trait among ASD and ADHD is weak executive functioning.

Executive functioning is the ability to plan and execute tasks. Organizing, memorizing, keeping track of time, following sets of directions, and understanding projects as a whole and in pieces all make up executive functioning. Whether a child has deficits or a full diagnosis of executive functioning disorder, parents play a valuable role in identifying and helping the child to manage and improve weak executive functioning skills.

There are some important signs and symptoms to recognize if parents believe their ASD child is exhibiting weak executive functioning. He may have a difficult time starting on any project, big or small. Simply following the morning routine to get ready for school can challenge organizational and executive functioning skills. Every day, a child dresses, brushes his teeth, and puts his lunch in his backpack, for example. Yet parents find themselves reminding him over and over again to do these same steps. A single instruction may be completed easily, but sets of instructions are seemingly ignored or half-finished.

Projects for school can be a nightmare for a child with executive functioning deficits. She may find it impossible and frustrating to come up with a concept for a project or to begin the planning stages. She may find that staying on task during work is a struggle and loses track of time. The slightest interruption can completely deter any momentum. Seeing the big picture may be impossible, or breaking down the big picture into smaller parts may not be a task he can manage. When it comes to planning and deciding which steps should come in which order, there is more frustration than progress.

At home or at school, there are simple steps parents and teachers can take to assist any child who struggles with executive functioning issues. Create checklists and charts. Pictures, cues, and written instructions can help a child stay on task when they are working through a project or daily tasks. Break down complicated instructions into step-by-step pieces that can visually processed.

Planners and calendars can be designed for hourly, daily, weekly, or monthly goal-setting. Set a timer to help her keep track of the time she has to complete each task. This may help her learn to gauge the necessary time for accomplishing smaller parts of large projects. Ask the child's teacher to have a daily schedule posted in the classroom so there is a visual outline of the day's tasks. Ask him to repeat back the instructions given or to help write down the instructions in a way he can more easily follow. Be sure everyone understands the overall goal and the steps that will be taken to accomplish the goal. Be patient.

Simple steps can help families and classrooms better manage executive functioning. Ask for accommodations and modifications to be written into IEP and 504 plans. If parents do not see progress after implementing the steps, talk to the child's case manager, speech therapist, school counselor, or teacher to see if they have recommendations for further professional intervention.

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Content copyright © 2023 by Tara O´Gorman, MSW. All rights reserved.
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