Autism: Understanding Our Executive Functioning

Many people with autism have difficulty with executive functioning. They may have trouble with certain skills like planning, staying organized, sequencing information, and self-regulating emotions. Some people pay attention to minor details, but have trouble seeing how these details fit into a bigger picture.”

(Executive Functioning | Autism Speaks, 2020)

At the moment I have been thinking about my executive functioning, I have begun to create a routine for my University work that fits in with my home routine. I had to intermit and effectively restart my course because I found everything so overwhelming, I didn’t make it past the induction. Since then (at the beginning of the year) I have support from DSA (Disabled Students Allowance) and have been assigned the most amazing Mentor and Study Skills Tutor. To help me practice and prepare for when I continue my learning they have supported me to create a personal project; by doing this they are supporting my executive functioning skills.

What Are Executive Functions?…

  • Planning: People on the spectrum can have difficulty identifying/choosing the correct steps needed to reach a goal, deciding on the order and using the proper cognitive resources and then putting all that information into a plan of action.
  • Working Memory: As well as struggling with this area it can also be one of many great strengths! It is the ability to remember specific short term memories needed to execute a function or daily task.
  • Attention: We often have a keen ability to focus, but directing that focus can be challenging for us, for example sensory issues.
  • Reasoning: This is how we understand/analyse/critically think about concepts presented in words and relay them back/integrate them successfully. This is the area where we miss social cues, sarcasm and ‘implied’ meanings that are not directly obvious to us.
  • Initiation: This is our ability to start an activity/plan/ task. Executive functioning difficulties in this area are ones like not being able to play a game/instrument or do homework/chores unless someone else initiates the activity. This is not because we don’t want to/haven’t got the desire to do so or don’t understand it is important, we just lack the function to “Just do it”.
  • Inhibition: This is our ability to have emotional/cognitive/physical reactions that aren’t acted upon in the moment. An example of when we don’t have this ability can be stimming (when not self-soothing) or when we get fixated on something.  
  • Cognitive Flexibility: This is probably one of the most well known areas that we struggle with. We need structure/routine and to be well prepared for new situations, In some cases this lack of cognitive flexibility can mean we have rigid thinking and opinions which can present extra challenges in social situations.
  • Monitoring: This is our ability to ‘think without thinking’. So breathing, walking, blinking, we only need to engage a small part of our brain to carry out these everyday actions. Monitoring difficulties mean that when we are really really tired or overwhelmed we need to put a bit more effort into engaging with these activities. For example, I drop things and walk and move really slowly when I’m overwhelmed. As I am paying more attention to carrying out these tasks correctly (holding objects without dropping them/not bumping into things and stumbling) I often don’t notice if someone is talking to me; I don’t hear them and I’m not aware of my surroundings other than directly in front of me (my next step).
  • Problem Solving: This involves nearly all of the functions above, it’s being able to use lots of functions at once to solve the problem once you’ve identified that there is one.

The team who helped me apply and enrol on the course were lovely and patient don’t get me wrong but they were only able to support me to the extent that a neurotypical (NT) person would need. Obviously being autistic I need more support than that and what would greatly help a NT person would make little difference to me. This made the application process a nightmare, I couldn’t keep up with the emails from department to department, who said what, when did I have to submit portfolio work by, which forms applied to me and so many other issues. I couldn’t make sense of all this new information and sequence what I needed to do. When the course began I was even more overwhelmed; the tasks were vague, used overcomplicated language and information was presented in a way that I can’t process. I was therefore unable to plan and understand my work, I had no idea what was being asked of me and how to begin to approach the work. Now I have my DSA support in place I have strategies to help me overcome these issues.

  1. I have a visual timetable, you might want to look into PECs (Picture Exchange Cards)
  2. I break down my tasks with my Skills Tutor into a list, then he gives me a smaller bullet point list of each section of the main list one at a time so I don’t get overwhelmed.
  3. I have my routine including both work and home together so they are easier to manage rather than 2 separate ones to keep track of. (Home includes self care time as it is extremely important)
  4. I have a support network chart, it’s a mind map of everyone who helps me and what they can help me with so I know who to go to and for what.
  5. I have made a personal statement that I can send to the appropriate people so know how to support me best with out the stress and anxiety that I experience explaining it to them over time and on the spot.
  6. I have a set of rules for each person that I can follow, very clear boundaries and expectations for me and them.

I find this incredibly helpful, I hope I have given you some ideas and helped with understanding a little bit, we can learn together 🙂

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