Difficulties with executive functioning

Broadly speaking, executive functions are a set of cognitive skills that are used for planning and carrying out tasks and for organising and regulating behaviour over time. Most researchers in this area agree that important elements include:

  • working memory
  • mental flexibility
  • inhibition 
  • attention
  • planning and organisation
  • self monitoring

These skills allow us to make plans, keep track of time and finish work on time, cope with distractions, evaluate ideas, ask for help when needed, take turns in games and conversations, and to stop ourselves from over reacting to minor situations. In addition, our executive functions help us to focus on multiple streams of information, check for errors, make decisions and revise plans given new information (CDC, 2011). Successful use of these skills allow students to participate successfully at school and manage their own behaviour and are crucial in developing and maintaining social interactions.

Executive functioning difficulties might not be obvious in early childhood or during the early years of school, but may become more problematic in upper primary and high school when teachers are less likely to provide scaffolds and structure for students throughout the day.

Some of the difficulties related to executive functioning that may be seen in children on the autism spectrum include:

  • difficulties with flexibility – it is possible that observed difficulties coping with changes, as well as the tendency for repetitive behaviour, may be strongly related to cognitive flexibility problems
  • planning – many students on the autism spectrum need help  to break tasks down into sections, understand the order of tasks and how to start and finish tasks
  • working memory – while some students show strong visual memory skills, others may show poor working memory skills and struggle to remember longer instructions and other difficulties which can impact on learning
  • inhibition – for some students, difficulties with inhibition mean that they may struggle to take turns appropriately, wait for information before starting a task or have difficulty managing their own behaviour

How are executive functioning difficulties a barrier to accessing the curriculum?

Executive function skills allow students to make plans, keep track of time and finish work on time, cope with distractions, evaluate ideas, ask for help when needed, take turns in games and conversations, and to stop ourselves from over reacting to minor situations. Without these skills, children on the autism spectrum find everyday life at school extremely challenging, both within the classroom and in the playground.

For more information, including details about suggested strategies, see the Executive Functioning Fact Sheet