Executive functioning in autism: Effects and symptoms

June 1, 2022

Executive functioning is a term representing a wide range of skills related to a person's cognitive function. Many children with autism suffer from executive function impairment, which creates difficulties in areas such as managing time and finishing tasks. This can make what would otherwise be simple chores such as cleaning their rooms, a challenging task.

What exactly is executive function?

The cognitive processes that help govern, control, and manage thoughts and behaviors are known as executive functions. This constitutes a wide range of skills and abilities such as planning, emotional control, problem-solving, verbal reasoning, inhibition, recognizing various points of view, action initiation and monitoring, inhibition, and cognitive flexibility. It also includes mental talents such as working memory, flexible thinking, and self-control.

Executive function is also referred to as the "brain's management system" because the skills required allow people to set objectives, plan, and complete tasks. When problems arise with this management system in children, it can affect them in all facets of life, diminishing the quality of their daily lives.

What aspects of executive functioning have the greatest impact on children with autism?

Of the many executive functions, there are three major abilities that have a significant impact on children with autism: working memory, cognitive flexibility, and inhibitory control. 

  • Working memory

Working memory refers to a person's ability to retain a small amount of information in their mind so that it can be used right away, similar to having a mental sticky note keeping the knowledge there and accessible when needed. Working memory is also what allows the brain to keep information primed while awaiting the opportunity to speak during a discussion. It can also aid in long-term knowledge storage in the brain.

  • Cognitive flexibility

This is the ability of a person to switch between several conceptions and consider information in multiple ways. For example, if at a gathering of friends and the subject abruptly moved from talking about holidays to discussing dogs, cognitive flexibility impacts how quickly and proficiently the brain responds to that change.

Other examples of cognitive flexibility is the aptitude for updating beliefs and responding to new conditions, being aware of a full range of options, and breaking down larger thoughts into smaller, easier parsed bits. When there are issues with cognitive flexibility, the results can include rigid thinking, difficulty transitioning to new jobs, and trouble adapting to other major life changes.

  • Inhibitory control

The ability to disregard distractions and manage attention span is referred to as inhibitory control. It relates to controlling impulses such as delayed gratification. A lack of inhibitory control might lead one to act automatically without rational thought, engaging in maladaptive behavior.

Symptoms of executive functioning issues in children with autism

There are many ways in which parents can identify issues relating to executive functioning. Here are some examples of a few:

  • Communication

Executive functioning can exacerbate communication issues, especially if a child struggles to hold information throughout a conversation. A lack of inhibitory control that impedes proper communication and a predisposition to speak inappropriately can be telltale signs of executive functioning challenges.

  • Planning

For children with autism, making a plan can be challenging; they can become overwhelmed and struggle to see how they can accomplish what needs to be done in a controlled manner. They may also have trouble organizing smaller tasks to achieve a larger goal.

  • Regular tasks

Getting up, getting dressed, brushing teeth, and performing housework all require working memory. While many children with autism have great fact recall, performing activities that require working memory may prove challenging.

  • Verbal reasoning

Autism can make it difficult for people to understand and absorb linguistic concepts. This may result in awkward sentence constructions or referring to themselves in the third person. 

  • Attention

Children with autism frequently have a strong ability to focus, but they may struggle to direct their focus in the appropriate direction. If they have sensory difficulties, for example, their attention may be drawn to the ticking of a clock or the intensity of overhead lights, rather than to someone speaking to them or to other more relevant information.

Helping children with autism and executive functioning delays

Understanding executive function delays is the first step in assisting people with autism. As experts continue to investigate this link, therapists and other providers can assist children with overcoming the challenges they face. 

Since each person is different, there is no "one-size-fits-all" approach. Although executive functioning is complex, intervention does not have to be.

Here are a few ideas for assisting children with executive functioning autism:

Make use of a visual schedule/system

Being able to picture their way through specific processes or tasks is quite beneficial for many children with autism. This evidence-based intervention uses pictures to walk them through the steps of achieving whatever goal they have in mind, such as completing a morning routine.  

These visual aids can make life easier, especially for children who are non-verbal:

  • Design timetables that represent time in visual segments
  • Create an organized task list
  • Illustrate each task with consecutive steps

Acquire professional assistance

ABA therapy is frequently used to treat executive dysfunction and encourage people to develop positive executive function skills. An ABA therapist can assist you or a loved one in better understanding certain behaviors and proposing strategies to improve their daily experiences.

Conclusion

Executive functioning can prove difficult for some children with autism. There are a wide variety of ways that executive functioning delays can manifest in a child; however, there are steps that parents can take to ensure that their child can overcome challenges to improve their daily life.

Songbird is a technology-enabled provider setting a high standard for children's developmental care using ABA therapy. With a profoundly passionate team and innovative technology, we are building a world where every child can access world-class care and therapies at home uniquely tailored to them.

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