Executive function: what is it, and how do we support it in those with autism? Part I - Autism Awareness
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Executive function: what is it, and how do we support it in those with autism? Part I

Executive function is a term that is widely used in autism circles to describe a broad array of skills that have to do with an individual’s cognitive function . Some sources say that up to 80% of those with autism suffer from executive function disorder, leading to difficulties managing time, completing tasks, and making what for many of us would be simple tasks – like cleaning our rooms – very complicated or seemingly impossible.

For some people with ASD, social and communication difficulties are not the primary issue. They are socially engaged and are doing their best to communicate frequently, but they are unable to respond in a timely and organized way to the requests of parents and teachers, or to organize and initiate sophisticated play  because they have considerable difficulty with executive function.

What is executive function?

The technical definition of executive function is: the cognitive processes that help us regulate, control and manage our thoughts and actions. It includes planning, working memory, attention, problem solving, verbal reasoning, inhibition, cognitive flexibility, initiation of actions and monitoring of actions. But what does that look like in  real life?

Cynthia Kim, in her blog Musings of an Aspie says:

In practice, executive function is a slippery concept. Sometimes it looks like responsibility. Sometimes it looks like self-discipline. Sometimes it looks like being a competent adult.

If you have poor EF, people might mistake you for being disorganized, lazy, incompetent, sloppy, or just plain not very bright. Why? Because executive function encompasses so many essential areas of daily living. Nearly everything we do calls on areas of executive function. Cooking. Cleaning. Parenting. Work. School. Self-care.

One of our contributors, Rebecca Moyes, described executive function this way:

(Executive function deficits) can be likened to an employee who works for a company where the supervisor is unorganized and inefficient. Nothing seems to go right, things get misplaced, and general chaos seems to be the operational rule. It’s a lot like that for children with autism spectrum disorders. The executive in charge of their brain is not effective, and because of this, planning processes suffer.

What are the aspects of our executive function

It’s important to know that not all people with ASD have issues with all the aspects of executive function. For instance, an individual might have the ability to plan, but lack the initiation to follow through. They might be able to problem solve once they realize there is actually a problem, but are unable to verbalize it. Here is a list of our executive functions and their basic descriptions.


Planning is the ability to forward-think and choose the necessary actions to reach a goal, decide the right order, assign each task to the proper cognitive resources, and establish a plan of action. Those on the spectrum can have difficulty formulating plans to get through their days and organize tasks into completable sections.

Problem Solving:

To problem solve, an individual must identify a problem and then formulate a strategy to solve the problem. Problem solving uses almost all the other executive functions including reasoning, attention, planning, initiation, working memory, and monitoring. Depending on which of the executive functions the individual struggles with, that is where the problem solving chain will get broken.

Working Memory:

Individuals on the spectrum notoriously have specific memory deficits and strengths. They can seemingly remember every Jedi name, rank and serial number in all ten Star Wars movies, but have trouble remembering to eat, or what day it is, or what the order of the steps are when brushing teeth. Working memory is the ability to remember specific short term memories needed to execute a function or daily task.


Attention is closely tied to working memory, and again those on the spectrum can show great strengths in some areas and severe challenges in others. Individuals with ASD often have a keen ability to focus, but directing that focus can be challenging.  If the person with ASD has sensory issues, then it’s possible all they will be able to focus their attention on is the sound of the lights buzzing or the smells of the other people in the room. An individual’s ability to focus directly affects what they can keep in and recall from their short term memory


Reasoning, or verbal reasoning, is the ability to understand, analyze and think critically about concepts presented in words, and then relay them back or integrate them successfully. Many of those on the spectrum struggle with verbal acuity. Verbal reasoning can also be hindered by social meanings that are not obvious to those with autism.


Initiation is the ability to start an activity, plan, or task. For those with executive function difficulties with initiation, they may want to play a certain game, do their homework, or play an instrument, but unless the activity is initiated by someone else it doesn’t happen. It has nothing to do with desire, or “want” – it is about lacking the function of “just doing it”.

child on bench

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Inhibition is impulse control; the ability to have emotional, cognitive or physical reactions that aren’t acted upon in the moment. So when a person with ASD  starts “information downloading” all the names and songs of their favourite 500 K-pop groups, this would be a lack of cognitive impulse control. Emotional outbursts, hand flapping, or stimming can be emotional and physical ways that impulse control aren’t in place, (although some stimming can be soothing and help concentration if controlled and non-harmful). Some children with ASD simply cannot control their impulses sufficiently to participate in structured situations.

Cognitive Flexibility:

Cognitive flexibility in simple terms is the ability to roll with the punches. Those with autism are well known to need structure and predictability, and change can be very challenging. This can also lead to rigidity of thoughts and opinions, as well as schedules and routines.


Monitoring is normally an unconscious process that kicks in when we are on auto pilot doing normal tasks. For instance, if you are walking down the street and talking to someone at the same time, normally only a small part of your brain is engaged in walking. You already know how to walk, so the monitoring part of the brain takes over and keeps you from bumping into things while you have your chat. For someone with executive function issues, if they were tired or overloaded, they would suddenly have problems with the “auto pilot” settings on basic activities, dropping or bumping into things, or simply not being able to pay attention in ways that could be hazardous like walking out onto a busy street.

How do we help individuals with autism overcome executive function challenges?

Executive function is something that most of us take for granted. We might have challenging areas here and there, maybe we aren’t as organized as we would like, or maybe we lack some initiative, or self-control, but for those with executive function disorder even the basics can be hard. So how can he help? We will go over some ideas for how to help in our next blog post.

For further reading:

Autism and Everyday Executive Function – A Strengths-Based Approach for Improving Attention, Memory, Organization and Flexibility

Executive Function “Dysfunction” – Strategies for Educators and Parents

Boosting Executive Skills in the Classroom: A Practical Guide for Educators

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  1. Minna Swann says:

    My high functioning autistic son has expressed a feeling of being on autopilot, not everyday but sporadically. He got a decent night’s sleep and I can’t find a trigger for it. Normally he says he makes small mistakes during the day when he’s on autopilot, cutting something the wrong size or forgetting something was scheduled when he typically would remember. This last time he ended up shoplifting lunch at a grocery store. Walking him through it he could clearly tell me what he “should” have done, but he can’t tell me the thought process leading up to him pocketing sushi and a drink. He’s never done anything like that before, it’s very out of character for him. Even telling me about it, he sounded very emotionally detached. When he went to call me he discovered his phone was dead, plugged it in, and then forgot to call me so I didn’t hear about it till later that day. He was not diagnosed until he was 12 which has made it very difficult for me to determine what’s part of his autism and what’s hormonal teenager. I feel like I’m in the right room but all the lights are out and I don’t know where the furniture is. On one hand a lot of his “quirks” were explained with the diagnosis, but on the other hand my insurance pays for testing but then anything labeled autism after that is not covered so I’ve had very little help navigating and helping/advocating for him. Since he turned 18 a week ago, all of this is being treated as he’s an adult. Could his “autopilot days” be related to executive functioning? With his court date coming up I’m trying to determine how best to advocate for him. If it is an executive function issue how do I help him manage it.

  2. Tabitha Henderson says:

    I just wanted to say Thank You. This explain a lot about my daughter. But so much more about me. Why I don’t do some things. And why I don’t do some things well without making a huge effort. I only just found out that I have ASD in the last 6 months. I’m turning 47 in a few months. I thought the sensory issues I was having was a normal issue everyone had. I also didn’t realise I suffer from executive function issues. I got told my daughter might be having some issue with it. But it wasn’t till I read your artificial that made it clear enough for me to understand that both of us have it. and not just maybe, or a little. We have issues with all of those functions. I don’t think any of those super powers missed either of us.

  3. Claire Mitchell says:

    Hello Maureen, thank you for the information, and for the invaluable work you are doing in regards to helping individuals with autism. I was recently diagnosed with ASD, at age 38, so now have some answers as to why I’ve struggled inexplicably over the years. I’ve been doing enormous amounts of research and just recently discovered executive functioning can be problematic for people with ASD. Although I now have an explanation as to why, it still does not make these struggles disappear. I believe my autism comes with many positive attributes and I am happy to be me, but I can be quite overwhelmed with the many difficulties I face at the same time. You see the difficulties lie in the dysfunctional system, within which we are all forced to reside, not neccessarily with the planet, the people on the planet, or with autism itself. The planet is round, society is square…I will never fit into their squares, and indeed, don’t even wish to try! Services here in Northern Ireland are limited at the best of times, but when it comes to mental health we are very much so lacking. I have an amazing family who have always done their utmost to be supportive, so in that respect I am extremely lucky. Reading your article on executive functioning has been a relief in many ways, because I have spent years giving myself such a hard time by assuming I am lazy and incompetent. However, I now feel a certain dread that this difficulty is here for life and something I will constantly have to keep on top of. Packing a small bag even, can create a lot of unwelcome anxiety. I have developed good techniques and strategies to try and compensate for this, and I will continue to build on these skills. The one thing I am most proud of is finally picking up the guitar and consistently playing for a period of two years now. It is not always easy to keep it up, but I manage. The thing is, once I sit down to play I absolutely love it and find it hard to set back down. The sad part is, I really struggle to motivate myself to play at all. But at least I’ve stuck at it all this time. Anyway, I just wanted to acknowledge the brilliance of people like yourself, and wish you all the best. Your kids are lucky to have have a mum like you, keep up the good work and I’m sending you a hug from me. I love my mum, she’s a great one for the hugs. Sincerely Claire

    • Claire, thank you for your wonderful, heartfelt comments. I am a musician too and got a music degree in flute and piano. Music has been a huge part of my life with my children too. I also figure skate to control my anxiety and stress in my parenting situation. That’s really normal having to motivate yourself to play. That’s is always the hardest part of any activity even if we like it – getting started.

      I have done work up in Northern Ireland with Autism NI – http://www.autismni.org/ . They are a wonderful organization. If you can call them, I would ask to speak with Arlene Cassidy if she is still there because she would be an excellent person for you to connect with.

      There are also some women only focused autism organizations – Autism in Pink – http://www.autisminpink.net/ and there is this online support group that is run out of Scotland – https://www.scottishautism.org/services-support/support-families/women-and-girls-online-support . You may also like this documentary about women on You Tube – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E-FvExDAqh8

      Mental Health is an area that needs way more support and understanding. Check out this online resource in Canada – https://www.actcommunity.ca/education/mentalhealth and http://asdmentalhealth.blog.yorku.ca/

      You are at the beginning of a lifelong journey but there is a community behind you. Our knowledge of females with ASD is increasing all the time and that is exciting. Girls present very differently on the spectrum and that is only been taken into consideration in the last 10 years. I just helped another young woman get a diagnosis who was never properly assessed for years. Her struggles broke my heart.

      Stay positive and reach out for help when you need it. I am here to try and answer your questions or direct you to services. Let me know how you are doing!

  4. Kim says:

    Thanks for this piece. I googled this to find out why my aspie husband is making me crazy with his executive function problems, especially when it comes to planning. Funny thing, I related to a number of these myself, but I guess that makes sense since I have ADHD. We appear to have different executive function weaknesses, and manage to compensate for them somehow. I should go easier on my husband about this because he puts up with my time management problems, especially!!

    • Thank you for your insights, Kim. Executive Functioning is a broad topic with many facets to it. I am glad this gave you a deeper understanding of EF.

  5. Albius says:

    autistic burnout it helps to understand the mechanics of this. i have been experiencing it more and more since 2009. my brain broke in 2013. im “high functioning” and can pass when all biological including mental cognitive systems are optimal but i experienced a trauma in 2009 and was progressively depleted over steep then slow curve to the point of brain functioning loss where i slept/isolated for 6 months as i recovered. i had had 2 part time jobs and one full time job and was a graduate student and too much interaction with people and the energy it took to try to keep things going was too much and that was it. and i have never been the same, i lost something when my brain broke and it has now been almost 5 years and i can feel it has improved somewhat but i reach burnout so much faster now than before and it lasts very much longer. ive been learning more about my condition and that helps because once i know how something works, it is much easier to navigate it. im still trying to figure people out though, and i do not think i will ever achieve that task. the people called NTs i do not like them very much. they behave in ways that are over-emotional and irrational and they drain me they need constant ego grooming and attention and are so unreliable and flighty in the sense that you say one thing in a way they do not understand or that does not fit with them and the whole thing comes crashing down. i really much more prefer the company of other autistic people or to be by myself. since 2009 my self -care now includes isolating much more for longer periods of time away from people. i go through long periods of time where i do not speak and it feels so good. i was fortunate enough to have had a full year of optional-only human interactions and i wish i could live there all the time unfortunately i have student loans and i need to work. im seeking a research job at the moment because there is a lot of isolation in that. i like to play video games a lot but i have to be careful because it is very easy to lose a whole day or two or week if i do not work very hard at keeping away from them. when i burn out its like my tongue loses its muscle and i start to slur, i also start to stagger and i always worry people will think im intoxicated or on drugs because they always think i am weird anyway even when i was at my most functional prior to 2009. its always so exhausting sometimes i think i will kill myself because i know this is not something that will change and will most likely become harder to self-regulate as i grow older. but i like life and learning and playing video games and my dogs and theory and learning about how math developed over time. i just wish it wasnt so hard to just be someone who is different. my memory is excellent, i remember everything. eidetic but filmgraphic not photographic; my memory is kinetic and sensorial and this has also been affected by the trauma from 2009 and i think it has to do with my brain attempting to block the memories but it can’t all it can do is misfile them continuously which messes with the whole system. there is always so much anxiety too. i just quit a job because of burn out and the co-workers. it was not a very safe or welcoming space for me because i moved to a small town for a job and people there are even less familiar with difference than city people and tend to pathologize and other difference more. at least in the city you can lose yourself in crowds and not stand out as much. the nice thing about being her is that when i am in the house i live my brain feels quieter calmer there is an awareness of less people (town is about 1200 people) and mostly i feel the absence of people which is great when i am in the house whereas in the city i could feel them all around me all the time and the only way i could buffer myself was by wearing headphones and playing video games. im not looking forward to being back in the city for that reason but i am going to buy myself some nose canceling headphones and try to find a place i can live that is on the edge of the city limits. thank you for your posts.

    • Dear Albius,

      Thank you for sharing your experiences and insights with us. Hearing from people on the spectrum gives us a better understanding of what you are going through and how we can best support you. My two adult children experience a lot of what you have said here, especially about the noise. My daughter wears noise cancelling headphones all the time and it really helps her to cope when we are out and about.

  6. Rosie says:

    It’s ironic that on a post about executive functioning issues, you wouldn’t edit the post to link to the second part of it, once written, rather than assuming people will be organised enough to realise it already exists and find it themselves! Not everyone subscribes to blogs (so your comment about missing it might not be relevant), plenty of people just come across single articles online.

    I would have just given up if I hadn’t happened to notice it was linked in the comments.

    • Dear Rosie,

      Thank you for your feedback. The Part 2 of this article is now linked in Part 1. Now and then, a detail is overlooked and it is not intentional. Thank you for taking the time to write and have a wonderful day!

  7. Cathie says:

    Where is part II? We are left hanging here. Will it be coming soon? If not, could you please rename this article so that we know there is NOT a part II.

  8. Polly Shearlaw says:

    Please can you email me the link when next blog post is released? (strategies to cope with poor executive functioning). I SO need some help, really struggling at work and my manager doesn’t have any insight into helping a staff member with Asperger’s diagnosis…

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