Executive functioning is the skill to act according to plan, in a determined and structured way towards a goal. It means the ability to regulate one’s behaviour and adapt to the demands of the situation. This skill is important for us to be able to act independently, set goals and achieve them. Executive functioning can also help us stick to what we agree to do and to control feelings of being overwhelmed.
Executive functioning develops slower in young people with ASD than in neurotypical young people. The main challenges are related to structuring their actions, being flexible and having a short working memory. Young people may, for example, find it difficult to anticipate and plan the future or understand how long it will take to do something and what order things should be done in. It may be important for them to do things a certain way and in the usual order. Even the slightest change in routines, schedules and the environment can prevent or hinder progress and require the restructuring of things. These skills are not always automatically transferred to new environments, such as moving to one’s own home, but they need to be practised separately.
“My working memory gets easily overloaded. When this happens, I process and express my thoughts more slowly.”
“The things that cause the most challenges in everyday life are the irregularities, or the things that are not a part of my daily routine.”
The executive functioning of young people can also be challenged by a difficulty to get started or stop doing something and, on the other hand, getting stuck on a specific action or approach. They may find it hard to remember instructions, orders and requests, particularly if many are given too quickly. In addition, the information relayed by the senses can reduce the young person’s executive functioning skills. Executive functioning difficulties are often misinterpreted as stubbornness, indifference or self-determination.
Anticipation and structuring help overcome difficulties in executive functioning
Executive functioning skills are needed in all areas of life: taking care of oneself, performing various household chores and studying. Difficulties in executive functioning can usually be resolved with adequate anticipation and the structuring of actions. Executive functioning becomes easier when you know: what will be done – when it will be done – where it will be done – with whom it will be done – how long it will last and what will happen afterwards. Actions can be supported by creating written or illustrated instructions together with the young person to support progress, make sense of the environment and process changes.
Executive function is made easier by:
- Seeing the big picture and understanding cause and effect: structuring the space and the actions, social narratives
- Anticipation (especially in situations of transition and change): structuring and anticipating actions and events, visualization if necessary
- Having a sense of time: clear daily rhythm, calendar, clock face, mobile phone, egg timer, TimeTimer, various mobile apps
- Structuring: timetable, calendar, to-do list or step-by-step instructions
- Making use of routines and rituals: making use of existing habits and routines
- Clear instructions: direct speech, one instruction at a time, written or illustrated instructions, if necessary, clear instructions prompting the right kind of action, describing expectations
- Feedback: timely, specific and positive feedback
- Rewarding: immediate and motivating reward
- Mobile apps that support executive functioning: Pomodoro Timer, Focus To-Do, My Daily Planner, Moodo, RoutineCalender, Digihelppari