Executive Function Deficit in Children on the Autism Spectrum

Children with High-Functioning Autism (HFA) and Asperger’s (AS) often face challenges related to their ability to interpret certain social cues. A term relating to these challenges is “executive functioning,” which includes skills such as inhibiting inappropriate responses, organizing, planning, and sustaining attention.

Difficulties with executive functioning can manifest themselves in a variety of ways. Some HFA and AS children have difficulty maintaining their attention or organizing their thoughts and actions. Some have difficulty with complex thinking that requires holding more than one train of thought simultaneously. Others pay attention to minor details - but fail to see how these details fit into a bigger picture. Problems with executive functioning can also be associated with poor impulse-control.

Executive function is a set of mental qualities that help the child execute certain skills, specifically (a) regulation (i.e., taking stock of the surroundings and changing behavior in response to it) and (b) organization (i.e., gathering information and structuring it for evaluation). These skills are controlled by an area of the brain called the frontal lobe. Executive function helps the child to avoid saying or doing the wrong thing, do things based on his or her experience, manage time, multitask, pay attention, plan and organize, remember details, and switch focus.

Your HFA or AS child may have significant problems with executive function if he or she: 
  • has to be constantly reminded to do homework or complete chores around the house
  • avoids tasks that require multiple steps or sustained attention
  • forgets to bring home materials for homework
  • completes homework and then forgets to hand it in
  • gets in trouble for talking during class
  • is consistently disruptive when the teacher is talking
  • gets upset when things don’t go his or her way
  • has difficulty when given instructions that have two or more steps
  • has trouble prioritizing homework assignments
  • has trouble organizing and planning long-term assignments
  • is disorganized and messy
  • is easily distracted
  • often blurts out answers and interrupts others when they are talking
  • starts homework assignments, chores, or work on a hobby, but often loses interest before the task is completed
  • tends to put off doing homework, school projects, studying for tests, or completing chores until the last minute
  • gets stuck on one possible solution when faced with a problem
  • has trouble coming up with alternative solutions

Additional warning signs that your youngster may be having problems with executive function include trouble in telling stories (verbally or in writing), starting activities or tasks, remembering, planning projects, memorizing, and estimating how much time a project will take to complete.

==> Preventing Meltdowns and Tantrums in Asperger's and HFA Children

How can parents and teachers manage executive function problems in children with HFA and AS? Here are 20 crucial tips:
  1. A posted classroom schedule can be very helpful for students on the autism spectrum (see above).
  2. Allocation of sufficient time for instructions, repetition of instructions, and individual student assistance is crucial.
  3. Assignment checklists can be used to break large, overwhelming tasks into manageable units. Teachers can break long assignments into chunks and assign time frames for completing each one.
  4. Creating pictorial checklists (e.g., cartoon picture of the student opening her Math book) and a visual reminder (e.g., countdown timer) of how long each task will take is another helpful strategy.
  5. Day planners, including PDAs, can help organize the HFA or AS child.
  6. Ask the school for permission to donate a beanbag chair that can be used as a "safe spot" for your child to go to briefly when he or she is feeling over-stimulated. The place should be quiet and peaceful (e.g., next to the secretary's desk, an adjoining room, a corner of the room partially closed off by furniture).
  7. Teachers can create separate work areas with complete sets of supplies for different activities.
  8. It’s important to make a checklist for getting through assignments (e.g., get out pencil and paper, put name on paper, put due date on paper, read directions, etc.).
  9. Have the child create his own visual schedules that he can look at them several times a day.
  10. Parents should meet with their child’s teacher on a regular basis to review work and troubleshoot problems.
  11. Minimizing clutter is vital.
  12. Having an organized work space is also very helpful.
  13. Parents and teachers should plan for transition times and shifts in activities.
  14. Preferential desk placement near the teacher and away from distractions is a good idea for kids on the spectrum.
  15. Have the child schedule a weekly time to clean and organize his or her work space.
  16. Teachers can use a weekly homework log that is sent from school to home and back, keeping all parties informed of work due and progress.
  17. Use calendars to keep track of long-term assignments, due dates, chores, and activities.
  18. Take advantage of tools such as time organizers, computers, or watches with alarms.
  19. Teachers should write the due date on the top of each assignment.
  20. Parents can use visual reminders (e.g., cartoon pictures of certain tasks) to remind their child when it’s time to start homework or complete a chore (see below).

The 7 executive functions include: emotional self-regulation, inhibition, non-verbal working memory, planning and problem solving, self-awareness, self-motivation, and verbal working memory. If your HFA or AS youngster can only remember two or three things at a time, often feels overwhelmed at school, has trouble getting started on tasks, and struggles with problem solving, he or she might have an executive function deficit.

==> More crucial information on how your child thinks can be found here...

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