What is Executive Function Disorder?

Executive functions are the mental skills we use every day. They help us get things done. For example, you use them for setting goals, planning, prioritising and remembering things. They let you manage your time and your possessions.

Not all autistic people find executive functioning hard. But many do. That means they might find it difficult to do some tasks that seem simple to other people.

Executive functions are: planning, problem solving, working memory, attention, reasoning, and initiation. They develop consecutively over time.

executive function: a child looking up while holding a pencil

What should I look out for in a child or young person?

A child or young person who finds executive functioning hard might have difficulty:

  • Paying attention;
  • Demonstrating self-control;
  • Managing emotions;
  • Holding information in their working memory;
  • Switching from one activity to another;
  • Getting started on tasks;
  • Organising their time and materials;
  • Keeping track of what they are doing;
  • Completing long-term projects;
  • Thinking before acting;
  • Waiting their turn.

They might also be easily distracted or forgetful.

Understood have created a ‘Day in the Life‘ of Josh, who has Executive Function Disorder. It might be helpful to see how those difficulties can show up in daily life.

Younger children and toddlers

You might see a younger child or toddler:

  • Becoming easily frustrated and throwing things instead of asking for help;
  • Forgetting what to do or seeming not to follow instructions;
  • Having tantrums over things that seem fairly minor;
  • Misbehaving instead of expressing their feelings;
  • Being stubborn about the way they do things.

Primary-school-aged children

You might see them:

  • Getting easily distracted with tasks;
  • Focussing on the least important thing that you have said;
  • Bringing in the wrong books to school;
  • Appearing very messy;
  • Panicking when there is a change in routine or in the order of activities;
  • Sticking with a plan even if the plan isn’t working;
  • Finding it hard to make plans with friends as they can’t organise it;
  • Having a hard time starting on a piece of work;
  • Getting caught up in the less important details first;
  • Becoming very upset over things that seem minor.

Older children and teenagers

You might see them:

  • Having trouble finishing tests or tasks on time;
  • Seemimg to lose track of time frequently;
  • Finding working in groups difficult;
  • Acting impulsively and taking unnecessary risks.

What can I do to help and support my child with Executive Function Disorder?

  • Be aware of the things that your child is struggling with. You can then plan strategies to help them in those areas.
  • Make checklists or visual timetables and supports for any challenging activities. That could include the morning routine and getting out of the house to go to school.
  • Set up routines around their most challenging tasks, for example doing homework.
  • Plan ahead to help your child. For example, try to get their lunch ready in advance and lay out their clothes with them.
  • Set time limits in which to complete each step of a task or activity.
  • Use a planner to help with working memory. It can be helpful to note down any tasks they need to complete, including pieces of homework or chores.
  • Use a reward system. This is particularly helpful for younger children. Make sure the instructions and goals are clear.
  • Talk to the school about different ways of learning that might benefit your child. Find out about any extra support they can put in place, too.
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