How Is Executive Functioning Affected by Autism?

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Executive functioning is the ability of an individual to make and keep plans, organize thoughts and prioritize tasks in a flexible manner. People with autism often struggle with these skills, but there are other ways they can cope that could be helpful for everyone else.

Autism is a developmental disorder that has been diagnosed in 1 out of 68 children. This disorder affects the way a person thinks, communicates, and behaves. The “female autism executive function” is an article about how autistic women have trouble with executive functioning tasks.


The high-level mental processes that help individuals plan, strategize, organize, and solve problems are referred to as executive functioning. Executive functioning is not completely developed in persons on the autism spectrum due to developmental delays induced by autism.

Some of these abilities can be taught manually to people with autism. They can figure out workarounds for other people, enabling them to operate normally.

What Is Executive Functioning and How Does It Affect You?

Executive functioning is a comprehensive neuroscientific phrase that encompasses the brain’s mechanisms for impulse control, attention span, memory, time management, organizational abilities, and efficient reactions to social and stressful circumstances, according to Psychology Today.

Executive functioning is essentially all about mental control and self-regulation. In the prefrontal cortex, processes for controlling executive functioning are controlled. From the moment a newborn is born until they are in their early to mid twenties, the cortex is constantly developing. As a result, a child’s executive functioning is less developed than that of a person in their forties.

As a result, executive functioning is one of the most difficult mental functions to master. Many children and teenagers struggle with executive functioning in school, but if these skills are completely developed, they may have productive and rewarding lives as adults.

How Does It Work?

Executive functioning is what allows individuals to establish objectives, make a strategy to attain them, and then follow through on that plan. It may be used for both little and large tasks, such as completing a basic chore at home or devising a life-changing plan over a long period of time. It works on a variety of levels.

Any procedure that needs time and resource management, decision-making, or the storage of significant facts for later use requires executive functioning. This does not include automatic behaviors like as breathing or avoiding danger, such as evading an incoming automobile.

Environmental risks, drug misuse, mental illness, and cognitive deficits may all disturb executive functioning. This makes it challenging for a person facing these conditions to perform effectively at school or at work, since both contexts need a high level of executive functioning to perform and prosper.

The Conductor of the Brain

Some have equated executive function in the brain to that of an orchestra director. Control, direction, organization, and facilitation of contact between each member and each section of the orchestra are the conductor’s responsibilities. The conductor gives each musician signals and suggestions so they know when to begin performing. They convey the appropriate speed and loudness, as well as when one artist or section should cease performing to let another to take over.

Even though the orchestra’s individual players are excellent in their own right, they need a leader to help them coordinate their performance with the rest of the group. Executive functioning in the brain accomplishes this. Although many talents and skills are available, executive functioning is required to organize and lead them.

Early on in school, children are taught the concepts of executive functioning by pushing them to collaborate on a schedule or complete a job with the purpose of reaching a goal. However, executive functioning may begin at home, when parents instruct their children to tidy up before eating supper or do their schoolwork before playing.

Finally, executive functioning aids children’s (and people’s) conceptualization of the larger picture. Then, with assistance, they may map out a step-by-step plan to get there.

The Impact of Autism on Executive Functioning

But, in the case of someone with autism spectrum condition, what does executive functioning entail? To grasp this, it’s vital to learn more about how autism affects a person’s thinking.

Most persons with autism can see the step-by-step aspects of a process (and are even brilliant at it), but they can’t perceive the larger picture. They struggle to recognize what specifics are significant to the larger strategy without that frame of reference.

Similarly, although most individuals on the autism spectrum are competent at sticking to routines or schedules, they may lack the executive functioning to adjust such schedules in the event of a setback or change of plans. If the timetable is modified for them, they may be unable to adjust. One of the markers of autism is difficulty with change and transitions.

A person with ASD may comprehend rules and how to follow them, but when rules are ignored, procedures are skipped, or shortcuts are used, they may get highly agitated. These tactics may be appropriate in the pursuit of the final aim for someone without autism. Because a person with autism may be unable to understand the larger picture, these “wrong” moves may be very unpleasant.

Because of how autism impacts a person’s relationships with the world around them, persons with autism often lose attention or motivation when the steps they must take are not intuitively appealing to them. While a person without autism may recognize that certain aspects of the process are more engaging than others, an autistic person may become utterly alienated from it. As a consequence, they may find it challenging to remain involved.

Executive functioning, like a conductor guaranteeing harmony between all elements of an orchestra, assists individuals in switching from one activity to the next, from one aspect of the process to the next. Transitions are likely to be difficult for someone with autism.

Communication & Multitasking

Autism makes it difficult for persons on the spectrum to convey their needs and ideas to others on a team due to the nature of the disorder. Similarly, they may be oblivious to other people’s speech and indications.

An autistic individual may never consider looking around to see what their colleagues are doing, asking for assistance, or following someone else’s lead. Relationships and collaboration might be difficult as a result of this.

Working memory, or the capacity to keep and deal with many bits of information at the same time, is an important aspect of executive functioning. In a sense, it’s multitasking. A person without autism may gain the mental ability to accomplish this, but someone with autism will not. They will likely insist on working on one piece of knowledge at a time and will get agitated if forced to multitask.

According to a description of a research conducted at the University of Strathclyde in 2011, young autistic people struggle to multitask due to their inflexibility. They were given a list of chores to accomplish in a certain sequence, and they found it difficult to deviate from it. This is generally due to a lack of big-picture vision and flexibility, which allows them to make adjustments in order to meet the ultimate aim.

Mind-Body Theory

Neurotypical humans may use executive functioning to deal with (or around) abstract notions. This will not come quickly (or at all) for a person with autism, according to the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

An autistic individual, for example, may not be able to comprehend the concept of a brainstorming session, and they will almost definitely be unable to engage in one. Instead, they will be considerably more at ease dealing with definite things and objectives, and any ambiguity or unknowns will make them quite uncomfortable.

Autistic people in general struggle with the “Mind-Body Theory” — the concept that other people will not know, share, feel, or understand their own thoughts, and that everybody has perspectives and emotions that are unique to themselves. The Mind-Body Theory is a core part of executive functioning.

An autistic individual suffers with the “dense interplay that occurs between brain development and (social) environment,” according to Pediatric Research. They’ll also find it difficult to believe that others in their team don’t understand them. Autistic people have challenges in relationships because of this.

Working with Senior Executives Delays in Functioning

Because autism is a lifelong disease, some persons on the spectrum will never achieve the full range of executive functioning abilities. However, managing complicated circumstances that need executive functioning is extremely achievable, allowing autistic persons to develop the abilities they require while working around the ones they don’t.

Autistic people may improve their executive functioning abilities through treatment. This often entails improving communication abilities as well.

Direct teaching is a good place to start. Face-to-face training may teach the ability of planning through the steps necessary for a certain goal, such as emphasizing the significance of finishing one activity before moving on to the next or how to utilize a calendar to keep on track.

A treatment team may assist a client in comprehending this model and then teach it to them on a daily basis until the concepts are fully understood. This often entails extremely specific, easy-to-understand directions.

The therapist will break down the process into tiny, specific stages rather than asking a person with autism to clean their teeth (the broad picture). Begin by removing the toothbrush, unscrewing the toothpaste cap, and squeezing a little amount of toothpaste onto the toothbrush. The therapist will then walk the client through the remaining parts of the procedure until it is finished. Later, the therapist will work with the client to connect these activities so that they may complete the whole procedure on their own.

When therapists deal with autistic people on this, they’ll make sure to utilize simple terminology. The ideal guidance is clear and precise. It’s tough to understand the message when there are metaphors or fancy words.

Many executive functioning abilities will be internalized without even thinking about it in neurotypical individuals, but autistic persons (and even non-autistic people with delayed executive functioning development) will benefit from focused education on time management.

Talking About Procedures

Role-playing is another approach to assist an autistic person with their executive functioning problems. This just entails talking about or rehearsing the scenario beforehand.

Practice challenges provide a low-stress environment in which the individual is required to put their executive functioning abilities to the test. Role-playing helps autistic people become more comfortable in unfamiliar circumstances.

Laundry may be assigned to them at home, where they will feel most secure. Most persons with autism would find this procedure daunting, but a therapist may help them prepare by role-playing it. It includes breaking down a huge work into smaller tasks and then even smaller individual stages, similar to direct teaching.

Laundry is a three-step procedure that includes washing the garments, drying them, and folding them. To begin, load the washing machine with clean clothing, add detergent, set the water temperature, and pick the proper cycle. Following that, you must wait for the washing machine to complete, then transfer the clothing to the dryer and wait for the dryer to finish. The last step in the procedure is to take the clothes out of the dryer, sort them, fold them, and put them away.

All of this, among other things, puts multi-step planning, time management, and memory to the test. It’s not only about being able to wash laundry when you practice this circumstance. It’s also about honing these abilities, and executive functioning is in charge of that.

Stories from the Social Web

Executive functioning helps people respond to unexpected events in the process (like running out of detergent or someone else wanting to use the machines). Since autistic individuals often lack executive functioning abilities, they may be taught to develop “Stories from the Social Web.” These are essentially short stories, complete with pictures, that help autistic individuals to navigate the world.

In the case of washing, a social tale might describe and depict what occurs throughout the process, as well as possible outcomes (such as the above-mentioned unexpected occurrences) and how to cope with them. When there is a system issue, the tale will provide solutions to concerns and scenarios that naturally occur, allowing the individual to keep their worry and suffering in control.

Parents and therapists may utilize the templates provided by Autism Speaks to construct their own individualized teaching tales.

From Visual Reminders to Rewarding Behavior

Although therapy may help autistic persons gain certain executive functioning skills, many people on the spectrum will most likely have to learn to live without the complete range of abilities.

Despite this, methods exist to assist autistic persons in overcoming their restrictions. Many smartphone applications, for example, may assist individuals in managing their time and staying on track. Visual reminders, such as charts or infographics, may help individuals remember the steps they need to complete a project or achieve a goal.

Some of these tools may assist in breaking down a procedure as much as feasible. The idea is to keep the stages simple and make the links between them plain. As the individual can see the individual steps to get there, the broader picture becomes clearer.

When neurotypical children fail at a task, they may react to punishment, but autistic children frequently do not comprehend why they are being punished. Instead, when students complete a stage in the process correctly, tiny, concrete prizes are often advised. This may assist them in internalizing as much of the procedure as possible, allowing them to replicate the processes in the future.

Executive function deficits may be compensated for by people with autism. They may gain important skills that will help them work with others and create and achieve objectives via therapy. While they may always suffer in this area, it does not have to prevent them from living a full and successful life.


What Is Executive Function and How Does It Work? Today’s Psychology.

Functioning as an executive. Autism Speaks is a non-profit organization dedicated to raising awareness about

Self-Regulation and Executive Functioning (March 2019). Harvard University’s Center for the Developing Child

History, Theoretical Models, Empirical Findings, and Endophenotype Potential of Executive Function in Autism Spectrum Disorder. Psychiatry’s New Frontiers.

How Do ADHD Students’ Executive Functions Affect Them? (In March of 2020). Mind, you’re a genius.

Autism Causes a Deficit in Executive Functioning (February 2020). Health is quite good.

My autistic son refuses to do anything except watch YouTube videos. (May 15, 2015) The Guardian is a British newspaper.

As someone on the autism spectrum, I prefer written instructions. (As of December 2016) The All-Powerful

Pupils with autism may have difficulty multitasking due to inflexibility. (2011, August). Science Daily is a news site dedicated to science.

Abstract Friendship and Reasoning in High-Functioning Preadolescents With Autism Spectrum Disorders (2011, January). The Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders is a publication dedicated to the study of autism and developmental disorders.

Mind-Body Theory and Neurodevelopmental Disorders of Childhood. (May 2011). Pediatric Research.

Direct Instruction’s Effectiveness in Teaching Students With Autism Spectrum Disorder to Respond to “Wh-” Questions (2016, September). The Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders is a publication dedicated to the study of autism and developmental disorders.

Making Meaningful Worlds: Autism Spectrum and Role-Playing Subcultures 2016 (June). Medicine, Psychiatry, and Culture

The Advantages of Visual Supports for Autistic Children Autism Parenting Magazine is a publication dedicated to parents of children with autism.

The Role of Reward Type and Social Context in Autism Rule Learning (In January of 2014) Developmental Neuropsychology is a branch of psychology that studies how people develop.

Personalized Teaching Stories Templates Autism Speaks is a non-profit organization dedicated to raising awareness about

Executive functioning is the ability to plan, organize, and manage your thoughts and actions. Autism can affect this in many ways. This powerpoint discusses these effects. Reference: executive functioning autism powerpoint.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is executive functioning disorder part of autism?

A: Executive functioning disorder is not a part of autism. Its a separate type of neurodevelopmental disorder that has its own set of symptoms and challenges.

What is the executive dysfunction theory of autism?

A: The executive dysfunction theory of autism is a theory about how some people with autism have impaired executive functions. Its one explanation for what causes the symptoms of ASD, like problems with planning and self-organization.

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