What is executive function disorder?

Executive functions are the mental skills we use every day. They help us get things done. We use them for setting goals, planning, prioritising and remembering things. They develop over time.

If your child is autistic, they may find executive functioning hard.  That means they can find it difficult to do some tasks that seem simple to other people. But not all autistic people find this is the case. 

Signs of executive functioning disorder

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.

Non-profit Understood has a ‘Day in the Life‘ page, about a child with executive function disorder. Read the story to see how some 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.
  • Focusing 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 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 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 for any challenging activities. That could include the morning routine and getting out of the house to go to school.
  • Set up routines for their most challenging tasks, like 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 for completing 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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This advice was written by our experienced Parent Talk coaches. Parent Talk is a free online service for parents and carers, provided by the charity Action for Children. For more advice, message our parenting coaches with our online chat.

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