Supporting Executive Function in Children With Autism (Part 2) - Autism Awareness
Mother helps her son to do homework

Supporting Executive Function in Children With Autism (Part 2)

As was outlined in the last post, executive function disorder affects many of those with autism in ways that can make tasks that most of us find quite simple, very challenging. Laura Munoz, an occupational therapist in Nelson BC, supports many children on the spectrum to develop executive function (EF) skills. When asked what she thinks is the biggest learning curve, she said:

“One of the biggest things for people to realize is just how much of an effect EF challenges have on your day-to-day life and on your child’s day-to-day life. It crosses all kinds of domains: from getting out of debt, to getting out of bed, getting dressed, managing school, managing your social life, being able to prioritize between things you want to do and things you need to do. It kind of feeds into everything we do in our days and weeks. ”

Ms Munoz points out that – like social skills- for many of us EF is something we “just sort of learn”.  Like other implicit behaviour skills (for instance, being able to read body language etc… ), EF is something that we “just kind of pick up” from being around people. “When you have EF challenges, you just don’t pick it up,” explains Munoz. “At that point it needs to be explicitly taught and knowing how to do that is essential.”

The good news? Children are still developing their executive function skills well into their 20′s. That means that there is a lot of time to help them grow and develop specific procedures they can use to help them in the areas they are most challenged.

How can parents help support their children with their Executive Function Skills?

1)Use visual supports to teach organization. There are many great tools, and articles on this topic. You can buy pre-made visual supports, or make your own. They can be printed out photographs, or drawings. Having some sort of visual representation of what things go where, and in what steps, so that the child has a clear image of where they are going, and what it is supposed to look like then they get there is incredibly helpful. When your child is getting ready to leave for the day, if there is a picture of what goes in the backpack that they can refer to, then they will know if they have packed their water, lunch, extra clothing etc…

2)Break down tasks into smaller parts. For those with executive function disorder, getting ready to leave for school in the morning can be an overwhelming task. If you break that task down into parts, it’s much easier. Getting up, get dressed, eat breakfast, go to the spot where your bag lives, pack the bag according to the visual aid that is next to the bag. Then shoes, then coat etc…”With one family, the child felt confused when his mother wanted him to clean the kitchen, ” explained Munoz. ” He wasn’t sure what that meant, so we broke it down into sections and took a picture of what each space (cutlery drawer, sink, counters) looked like when it was cleaned the way Mom wanted.”

3)Have clear spaces where things go.  ” I was recently helping a teacher with a large class and many different kinds of children to organize her class” recounted Munoz. ” The teacher was frustrated because the children didn’t have designated seats, so the water bottles the kids brought every day just went everywhere because they didn’t have a space. We made a box with a piece of tape with a picture of water bottles,  and then we explained to the children it was the water bottle parking spot.”  Have designated spaces with pictures above them: this is your basket where your hats and mitts go, here is where your shoes go, here is where the garbage goes. Eventually it will become second nature.

4)Don’t come to the rescue. Parents often develop and model amazing EF skills while they juggle kids, pets, jobs, and each other. Those parents often step in seamlessly when their kids are having trouble with a skill set that is so strong in the parent. Stepping in to organize your child’s bag, driving them to school with endlessly forgotten lunches or homework, and cleaning their room for them doesn’t help children learn to do these things for themselves. It does take more time to set up a learning process, to wait and give your child a chance to do it on their own first, but ultimately the only way to work on EF is to set up ways to help, and then practice doing it.

5)Set aside lots of time and lots of patience. How much time? Extra time, more time than it would take you to do it. For some parents and kids, this means doing it the night before. It will take longer than you think, but you want to give them the time to do as much of it on their own as you can so that they can learn. If you are really in a hurry at any point, choose a different time for learning skills. There are always opportunities and no need for extra stress if you are pressed for time.

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Get help if you need it: executive function development is not only a parent’s job

Munoz also wanted to express she’s not advocating that parents do this entirely on their own. It’s not just a parental responsibility to make sure our children learn skills around executive function. It’s also  teachers and child care or support workers; every adult that engages with that child has the responsibility for teaching those skills because for a lot of kids, they are not just implicitly picked up. Seek help from an occupational therapist or other professional when you need support or to get you started. It does take longer to set up processes to help our kids at the beginning. It can be especially challenging because trying to teach something you never actually had to “learn” is hard, but the rewards for a child’s self esteem and ultimately their further independence is worth it.

For further reading:

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

Smart But Scattered: The Revolutionary “Executive Skills” Approach to Helping Kids Reach Their Potential

Organizing the Disorganized Child – Simple Strategies to Succeed in School

Teaching Time Management

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  1. JB says:

    Hi Maureen, I really appreciate this website and article. But this really focuses on children. I wish you would write one for a struggling autistic adults perspective. Kids dont grow out of autism, and not every autistic kid had parents that cared enough to pick up on the autism. As someone who personally belongs to this kind of situation, I find it really difficult looking for help with my issues and struggles when every article is written for a parent of an autistic kid.
    Much love.

    • JB, thank you for your feedback. I try to write articles that cover a variety of age groups. I am a parent of two autistic adults so have been out of the child stage for quite awhile. I can certainly think about writing a blog post that covers adulthood for this topic. Thank you for taking the time to write.

  2. Adri says:

    Hi Maureen, thanks for your dedication!
    I wonder if you have any tips to make task initiation easier
    It doesn’t matter if I remember to do something, if I know how to do it and have time to do it, I just simply can’t move and start doing it, literally, sometimes I just lie there trying to convince myself to move my body and start doing something, but it just seems impossible
    Thanks again and happy new year,

  3. Lou says:

    Interesting read. My son was diagnosed with ASD when he was 27. He struggles with day to day tasks and had to give up his fulltime job. He has since set up an online business and now works from home. He requires support to motivate and organise himself in order for his business to operate.

    • Lou, often it is for the executive function reason that adults get diagnosed. The details of day to day life can be overwhelming. Using visuals for schedules, checklists and task breakdown can be very helpful.

  4. john.garcialandry says:

    Excellent article. I learned a great deal about how to assist students who have issues with executive functioning issues.

  5. Ann says:

    On another article on the web, I found the following comment as very important to the conversation:
    “Executive functioning challenges are a byproduct of what’s going on, not the problem itself. It’s best to tackle the root cause and organizaional components will follow naturally. Understanding Defense Mode is the best place to start.”

  6. Lesley says:

    Hi Maureen, I have my granddaughter aged 20 living with me now, she has ASD that has never been dealt with, although she was diagnosed at 4 years old. Now as an adult I am struggling so much with her. No one seems to want to help, she desperately needs CBT but I am expected to try to do this on my own. I love the EF information but here in the UK I cannot find anyone who deals with this. It is a minefield and a battleground trying to get help. As soon as they find out that my granddaughter is high functioning, which basically means she can hold a conversation, they brush her aside. There are so many things she doesn’t have a clue with, although she can tell you every single Pokeman’s name!

  7. kay says:

    I’d love to know what to do as a middle aged adult. Reading over and over again about what to do for children is making me hate kids.

  8. jana says:

    This is all very helpful. I wish we’d had this insight when our kids (23 year old twins on the spectrum) were younger. We’re currently still still struggling with these issues, regardless of years of intervention and modeling and therapy. College was impossible for them, as is working anything more than a PT job. This feels like an endless task and is often overwhelming for parents. I wish society was organized for those on the spectrum.

    • Jana, I feel the same way as you do. My son is about to turn 22 and my daughter, 20. I am constantly overwhelmed. Job often don’t work out or aren’t available past a few weeks. My son does a lot of work experience but has no job yet. Both are happy, though, so that it a lot to be thankful for. I think there is going to be more literature publisher for our young adult group in the area of executive functioning. I’ll keep trying to write and post as much as I can because anything that I learn, I try to share with all of you.

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