Improving Executive Functioning Skills in Autistic Individuals

Executive functioning refers to the cognitive processes needed to plan and complete tasks and includes skills such as: 

  1. Initiation: This involves a person’s ability to begin tasks independently and within a timely manner.
  2. Planning: This involves identifying and taking the steps necessary to finish a task or accomplish a goal. Planning includes determining the amount of time needed for each step, prioritizing information, and choosing what information will be needed to complete the task.  
  3. Organizational Skills: Individuals who struggle to pay attention to important features of their environment, or logically organize and plan their behavior, often have difficulty succeeding in situations that do not provide external support and structure. 
  4. Mental Flexibility: This is the ability to easily shift from one idea, thought, or activity to another. Mental flexibility allows us to adapt to changing conditions and unexpected situations. Mental flexibility also helps us to understand the perspective of others. 
  5. Reasoning, Problem-Solving, and Judgement: Reasoning and judgement involves deliberately working to solve problems in the moment, and determining if the solution is the best choice to address the problem. Reasoning and judgement provide the foundation for problem solving and arriving at solutions that address the problem.   

Many autistic people struggle with executive functioning skills and therefore, may have difficulty with certain skills like planning, staying organized, sequencing information, and regulating their emotions. Some autistic people may pay attention to small details but struggle to understand how those small details fit into a bigger picture. Other individuals may struggle to maintain their attention in a classroom or workplace environment. When preparing to complete a task, some individuals may find it difficult to organize their thoughts and actions in order to determine a proper sequence of steps needed to complete said task. Additionally, they may struggle to recall previous problem-solving successes and failures. Executive functioning is something many individuals take for granted but for those with executive functioning disorder, even the basics can be very difficult. 

Executive Functioning Can be Improved

Strategies for Initiation: 

  • Develop and practice routines until they are mastered   
  • Break large projects or tasks into smaller steps  
  • Create and use checklists, graphic organizer, or a series of visual cues indicating steps needing to be completed for a specific task   
  • Use contingency-based (if, then) interventions centering around highly motivating reward   ·Write down a specific start time for each task   
  • Use visual imagery to practice the steps of the activity prior to initiation   
  • Provide frequent check-ins to ensure work is being completed

Strategies for Planning: 

  • Develop short and long-term goals
  • Use smart phone or timers to set reminders and alarms   
  • Develop a step-by-step guide for problem solving: identify the problem, consider relevant information, list possible solutions, create and evaluate plan of actions  
  • Identify materials and resources needed for each step   
  • Write down steps on calendar and check calendar each day to ensure that the steps are being completed   
  • Create step-by-step visual instructions 

Strategies for Organizational Skills: 

  • Establish a daily routine   
  • Use picture schedules, planners, checklists, or electronic organizers to organize the day and prepare for transitions   
  • Use multiple storage bins labeled with words or pictures of content  
  • Ask for help with time management skills, specifically how much time an activity, or part of an activity, will take to complete   
  • Use a folder system with sections labeled “to do” or “completed”   
  • Be prepared for changes in routine or mistakes that might occur   

Strategies for Time Management and Flexibility: 

  • Avoid too much novelty at one time   
  • Develop and practice schedules and routines as often as possible   
  • Use timers to prepare for transitions   
  • Learn to analyze directions, break down problems, self-check and self- correct  
  • Use coping strategies, such as belly breathing, mindfulness, or meditation to deal with the unexpected   
  • Engage in journaling to reflect upon how mental flexibility was demonstrated in certain situations

Strategies for Reasoning, Problem-Solving, and Judgement: 

  • Use self-monitoring questions, such as “What else could I do?”   
  • Ensure information is presented in a clear and concise manner, the use of puns, sarcasm, and double meanings are not helpful; ask for direct communication as needed
  • Check for understanding and the need for assistance   
  • Discuss, plan, and prepare for changes in routine  
  • Learn and understand clear expectations and negative consequences of risk-taking behaviors   
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