What is Executive Functioning?
Executive function is a term used to describe an array of skills that have to do with an individual’s ability to manage time, initiate and complete tasks, and organize thoughts. Deficits in these skill areas can make, what for many of us would be simple tasks – like cleaning our rooms – complicated or seemingly impossible for an individual with autism.
Executive Functioning and Autism
Individuals with autism often struggle with executive functioning skills. They may have a difficult time with completing tasks, remembering what they have been told, following instructions, switching tasks, keeping track of belongings, and managing time. The absence of adult supervision and direction may make completing homework or daily living tasks difficult for children with autism. Caregivers may become frustrated and experience higher levels of stress as they may perceive their child as being non-compliant. Implementing behavioural strategies such as schedules, timers and rewards to support the needs of your child can allow them to independently initiate and complete daily tasks. This in turn can reduce family stress levels and allow your child to feel accomplished and proud. These skills can then be generalized to other settings such as school, social situations and, in the future, the workplace.
- Identify an item or activity that your child likes that could be used as a reward for task completion (what motivates them to want to finish their homework?)
- Determine how often you are going to deliver rewards (e.g., based on the number of tasks completed or the amount of time they stayed on task). Rewards can be earned multiple times throughout the day, daily or weekly
- Strategies to help your child stay on task:
- Schedule/planner (in an agenda or phone) – specify tasks and keep track of completion. Breakdown big tasks into smaller achievable and manageable ones
- Timer – to keep track of time spent on each task or to indicate when it is time to switch to another task/activity
- Tokens – reward with small items (e.g., stickers or a checkmark) for completion of tasks and trade in for a big reward when a specific number of checkmarks are collected (e.g., get a checkmark every time they finish a page of math problems, when they get 5 checkmarks they can watch TV)
- Ensure the work environment is free of distractions (e.g., TV, iPad, siblings)
- Preferences: are there certain tasks that your child prefers over others? Are there ones that they would like to do first or last? To maintain engagement and motivation, intersperse less preferred tasks with preferred tasks. To encourage starting the task, start with preferred tasks
- Identify resources for support:
- Who they can reach out to if they need help (e.g., teacher, parents, siblings)
- Where they can gather resources (e.g., websites, library)
- Start with tasks that are fun and play to your child’s strengths
- Make instructions/expectations clear so your child knows what to do to get a reward
- Build in choices for your child so they have some control over their tasks
- Reassess whether the task is too large for your child to complete and consider breaking the task down into smaller steps – make tasks achievable!
- Reassess whether your child is motivated for the rewards offered
- Provide more and frequent rewards for more challenging tasks
- Ensure that your child is unable to access rewards independently, so they have to complete their task in order to access it