Executive Function Skills and Autism

Executive Function Skills and Autism

Beatrice Moise, M.S., BCCS
8 minute read

If you are reading this article, it is probably because you have been told by a professional that your child has executive function skills disorder or issues. This probably also means that you have a child with an Atypical brain, that Atypicality may present itself through Autism, ADHD, or another type of learning difference. Whatever it, my hope is that the therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist explained it well enough that you have a good grasp of it and want to know how you can help your child manage it. 


Conversation with Developmental Pediatrician  

When our developmental pediatrician told me that my son had Executive Dysfunction, she did not explain it well. The definition was too clinical for me to relay to my husband. My understanding of it was clear, but I have a mental health background and was an active mental health clinician, but this was not my husband's case. I wanted to be able to relay this information so that anyone can understand it.    

When Jacob's psychologist told me that he was on the Autism Spectrum, many things went through my head. I wanted to know how this would affect his long-term life capabilities, but I had no idea how his day-to-day life and things we take for granted will be challenges for him. Discovering that he had Executive Dysfunction was a big eye-opening moment for me because everything started to make sense. The best way for me to understand and explain it to myself was to say it's like a meeting in his head, and all the representatives did not show up.   

When my son was younger, it appeared as if he had a greater learner disorder. At one point, we were extremely concerned with him not retaining information in his head. We would tell him to retrieve the remote control on the table, and he would stand by the table and be stuck. It appeared like he was having short-term memory issues. This became incredibly frustrating to both him and me. I decided that it was simply easier to do it myself or retrieve the item myself. But I knew this was not going to help strengthen his brain and grow that muscle. I knew this was going to be a challenge for him and a challenging way to parent.  


What is Executive Function?   

Executive Function basically is the executive center of your brain. Imagine your brain with different floors and meeting places. The Executive Center is basically the top floor meeting room where other areas come together from the other offices to discuss plans for the day. All these plans come together and come up with a way to execute these ideas. Executive Function helps you start and complete a task. These tasks typically are easy to do, such as wake up, brush teeth, get dress go downstairs, pack a bag, put on shoes, etc.; these skills are house in the area of the brain called the frontal lobe.   

executive function skill and autism frontal lobe

Office A is to ignore a distraction and stay focused on the present task; this plan is self-control or inhibitory control. Office B is working memory, and this means information is given and must be stored and the recall for later use. Office C is seeing a problem and coming up with a new way to solve this problem; this plan is called flexible thinking or cognitive flexibility.   


Good Executive Function  

If you have good executive function skills, these offices frequently meet and execute these plans without any interruption throughout the day. When there is a board is meeting, and for most people, these actions are done without issues and are executed quite easily.  Executive Function helps you start and complete a task. These tasks typically are easy to do, such as: wake up, brush teeth, get dress, go downstairs, pack a bag, put on shoes, etc.; These skills are house in the area of the brain called the frontal lobe. 


Executive Dysfunction 

When you have an executive function disorder, some of these individuals did not show up to the board meeting, causing a delay. Sometimes the individuals arrive too late after the meeting already started and missed critical information.  


Causes of Executive Function Deficit?   

The area of the brain that is responsible for executive function is the frontal lobe. It helps you plan and organize, remember details and multitask, to name a few. When that area of the brain is not working properly, you have less control over your behavior. You have a hard time doing things independently and executing tasks without constant reminders. This makes parenting extremely taxing and frustrating. Constantly reminding your child to repeatedly do the same things they have been performing for years can cause turmoil within the household. The frontal lobe also holds emotions and motor functions, so when you have a child who can't calm down and can't see past the moment, things can become chaotic, and your child can go from 0 to 100 within a matter of seconds.   

Individuals with Autism, ADHD, and or Learning Disabilities are sometimes are born with an improperly functioning executive center. When your child has a hard time with task completion, planning, or time management, they may have an executive function skills disorder. It is important to note that you can have a learning disability, ADHD, or Autism and not have executive dysfunction. My son was born with these issues, and it took a few years for us to get a handle on it. Gaining insight and information and how it was manifested truly made the biggest difference for us.   


How do I Help my child?   

The brain is a valuable muscle, and like any other muscle in the body, it requires exercise when there is a weakness; if you work it out consistently, it will get stronger. Now let's go back to the board room scenario; those offices can attend the meeting; however, those offices show up on a wrong day, attend the meeting late, and are not properly prepared to discuss the plans. To help those offices be successful with the task, they will require additional support, and if we can send an early reminder about meeting time and when and what topics we are discussing, that office will have a higher chance of succeeding.   

Steps to Helping   

  • Implement visual aids to help them remember what comes next and to illicit independent behavior to build positive self-esteem and self-confidence with daily tasks.   

  • Teach your child how to manage and use their agenda. Teach your child how to write in a planner and what to put in it; this will help them know what is coming and how long to plan for things to help with time-management.   

  • Break tasks down into simple steps with fewer words with a checklist.   

  • DO: Brush Teeth, turn lights off, go downstairs,   

  • DON'T: Verbally say, "when you wake up tomorrow morning, don't forget the brush your teeth and look around to see what else needs to be done and make sure the lights are off before coming down and we have to head out, so we are not late for school again like we have been this whole week."   


I learned with my son that with consistent practice, he has greatly decreased the daily struggles, and when he is faced with a new, unfamiliar task, he can make quick adjustments with ease. 


About the Author

Bea Moise, M.S., BCCS., is a Board-Certified Cognitive Specialist, Parenting Coach, and National Speaker. She is the creator of A Child Like Mine,LLC , a company created for educating parents of children with unique behavioral and learning needs while giving them the tools they need to be successful at home. She is a respected and trusted parenting coach and consultant in Charlotte, NC, and surrounding areas. She is frequently featured on WCNC Charlotte on Parenting Today, providing tips for parents in the Charlotte area.  She serves as a Board of Trustees Member at KidsWithPossAbilities, which provides funding for therapy, assistive technology, and educational scholarships for children with developmental delays in the Greater Charlotte Area, and The Lunch Project a community-driven lunch programs in Tanzania, giving kids the fuel to learn so they can transform their communities. She has written for PsychCentralCharlotte Parent MagazineAutism Parenting MagazineCarolina Parent, and a contributor author in Southeast Psych’s Guide for Imperfect Parents: A Book Written By Imperfect Therapists. She was featured in a documentary called Look to the Sky an inspiring documentary that takes a look at what is possible for the world and our own lives. 

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