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Resource Guide

Understanding Executive Function

February 5th, 2024

Sharon Grattan

For Everyone

Want to understand Executive function? Executive function (EF) is a term used to describe a set of cognitive skills that are crucial for managing and regulating various aspects of our lives. These skills enable us to plan, organize, initiate tasks, shift between activities, regulate our emotions, and exhibit self-control. While executive function skills develop over time for most individuals, they can pose unique challenges for those who are autistic or neurodivergent. However, with support, tools, and coaching, these challenges can be addressed, and many autistic people can learn helpful approaches to support their executive function abilities. 

Understanding Executive Function 

Think of executive function as the CEO of the brain. It’s responsible for making decisions, managing time, setting goals, and executing plans. This complex cognitive process involves several components: 

  • Inhibition: Controlling impulsive behaviors, resisting distractions, and staying focused on a task.  
  • Working Memory: Storing and using information, which is essential for tasks like following multi-step directions.  
  • Cognitive Flexibility: Switching between tasks, adapting to changes, and thinking creatively.  
  • Planning and Organization: Creating strategies, setting goals, and breaking them down into manageable steps.  
  • Time Management: Allocating time effectively and understanding the passage of time.  
  • Emotional Regulation: Recognizing and managing emotions to maintain appropriate responses.  

Frequently, autistic people’s EF skills may trail behind those of peers by several years, and unlike many, autistic people may not naturally acquire these skills over time; instead, they often develop compensatory coping strategies. It’s crucial to adjust your expectations regarding a child’s developmental progress accordingly, considering that EF can significantly influence their task performance in daily life.

 

image shows a person surrounded by sticky notes reminders 
"Executive functioning skills are essential for planning, organizing, and regulating various aspects of our lives. While many autistic people struggle with them, we can develop effective approaches to enhance these abilities with appropriate support."
Think of executive function as the CEO of the brain.
 
Tools for improving executive functioning: Building support systems  

Executive functioning skills are essential for planning, organizing, and regulating various aspects of our lives. While many autistic people struggle with them, we can develop effective approaches to enhance these abilities with appropriate support. Here are some options suggested by autistic staff on our team:  

  • Communicate: Clearly and directly communicating about needs and preferences enhances mutual understanding. 
  • Establish routines: Creating and maintaining routines provides structure and predictability. 
  • Manage tasks carefully: Breaking larger tasks into smaller steps makes them more manageable. 
  • Use visual supports: Charts, schedules, and reminders offer tangible references for daily activities. 
  • Adapt to changes: Understanding that EF challenges may lead to unexpected changes requires patience and flexibility. 
  • Collaborate on decision-making: Involving someone trusted in decision-making fosters autonomy and empowerment. 
  • Clear instructions: Providing clear and concise instructions aids in better understanding. 
  • Support self-advocacy: Encouraging partners to express needs and preferences builds self-advocacy skills. 
  • Make a safe space: Fostering an environment where partners feel comfortable expressing thoughts and feelings strengthens the relationship. 
  • Keep learning: Understanding autism and executive functioning deepens empathy and support. 

Adapting these strategies and more to your specific needs is essential to their success.

 

Frequently, autistic people’s EF skills may trail behind those of peers by several years, and unlike many, autistic people may not naturally acquire these skills over time; instead, they often develop compensatory coping strategies.

 

Resources for Enhanced Support 

Consider integrating various apps, books, and other tools into daily life: 

Visual aids: Tiimo and Todoist aid in organizing tasks and managing time. 


Task chunking: Tools like TimeBloc, Goblin Tools, and The Bullet Journal break tasks into smaller steps.

Timers and alarms: Time Timer, Apple Watch and Amazon Alexa assist in time management. 
 

Mindfulness techniques: Techniques like deep breathing aid in emotional regulation. 

Professional development: The following programs provide practical information and guidance for intervention plans. 


Books:  


Other resources: 

Apps:

Service providers in BC who help with executive functioning across the lifespan: 

If you’re an AFU-approved or adult service provider offering executive functioning support or coaching, email us at [email protected] to be added to our list.  

 

Seeking support for executive function skills is a proactive step towards personal growth and empowerment. It’s a recognition of individual strengths and a commitment to navigating the world in a way that aligns with one’s unique neurodiversity. Be kind to yourself and your loved ones while you make progress on this personal journey. 

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