Executive Functioning in Autism: When Not Everyone Shows up for the Meeting

When I was first told a long time ago that my youngest daughter’s Autism fell into the category of “executive functioning” I was like, um, what? I’d known for some time that Autism is an “umbrella disorder” with a LOT of different variations in its broad spectrum of symptoms and other challenges faced by those diagnosed. Sifting through the myriad of challenges my daughter deals with was always a bit overwhelming, but there are still many hurdles we face today, one of which is that she is now sixteen and sixteen year olds on any part of the planet do NOT like being told that they are different, has “challenges”/autism or is in anyway not “normal”. That’s a lot of phrases in quotes for this one paragraph…whew.

In the neurotypical brain, the frontal lobe is the area that handles behaviors and emotions that fall under the description of executive functions. When you try to remember things, try to organize your thoughts, or do more than one thing at a time or in a row, this part of the brain makes it happen. Individuals who have Autism with difficulties in Executive Functioning often have much less control over their behavior and less success with all of those activities that require organization. What some people may not realize, as with many invisible challenges of Autism, is that the person is not being stubborn, difficult, non-complaint, defiant or anything other than not able to cope with the incoming information nor the ability to process and execute what needs to be done.

Picture of a person holding their face with both hands, exhibiting an anxious look. Above their head is a drawing of a road going in many directions with all sorts of road signs, such as exit only, detour, do not enter, wrong way and stop, all over the place in a confusing manner.

Living with and facing these challenges is overwhelming for the person trying to integrate themselves into a society that expects compliance and follow through. For families, caregivers, coworkers and friends, let alone the general public, the lack of education on these issues and how to deal with them can lead to huge chasms of societal calamities, including bullying, giving up, lashing out, abandonment and even violence (my son has been known to throw/break things on rare occasions). Those results are thankfully not in every situation, but they happen a lot more than people really know. There are many examples, but this article delves into the bullying issue quite well, sadly.

With this much confusion and lack of education on the issue, what can a parent, caregiver, family member, friend, neighbor, employer or anyone else do to help? There are many steps to helping someone with challenges in this area. While my being a parent for almost three and a half decades make me feel like I’m quite experienced at this, nothing prepared me for the executive functioning challenges of Autism. I still struggle and probably always will. Here are some things that I know have worked in the past and some things that have not (in my case). None or all might or might not work for you!

A drawing with a child sitting on top of a very large pile of toys on a bed. The mother has a frustrated look on her face and the child says, “But mom, all you said was ‘get all your stuff up off the floor!'”

Specificity is difficult to impart if you conceptualize it one way and your child interprets it in another way. If I tell my daughter to “clean up the kitchen”, she may clean up her own dishes and wash the pan she used and be done with it. All the other dishes, the dirty counter, crumbs on the stove and floor all may be overlooked. In many cases, making a concise list of requests is helpful, but at the same time, you must be mindful of not overwhelming the person in the process. “Put your dirty dishes in the dishwasher, wipe the counter, sweep up crumbs” is clear and concise. Putting it in writing if your child is able to use written communication, or there are ways to find pictures online, print them out and make charts if need be. Special programs exist to help with chores and tasks, many therapists have access to these things and can work wonders with them.

If you want to TRULY get your point across, there is one VITAL thing you must remember. DO. NOT. RAMBLE. If you do, they will most likely miss 98.5498234% of what you said and none of it will get done. If any of it does get done, it may not look anything like the original request. Yelling? You might get something done, but the resentment you create will create barriers to future, effective communication. It will take A VERY LONG TIME to correct this, if ever. If you want to be sure you lose all hope of getting things done, try saying, “All I want you to do is take care of the dishes, get the mail, grab all those towels off the bathroom floor and get them washed. I know school isn’t over yet, but I’m not sure how many classes you have left. Be sure to eat lunch and brush your teeth too!” They MIGHT have heard dishes and teeth, but that’s about it.

A great deal of what I said above can truly be applied to many teens, adults, small children etc. However, with challenges in executive functioning, the ability to keep everything organized is sometimes so impaired that emotions run high, the individual lashes out, or becomes overwhelmed and cannot complete the requested tasks. Oftentimes, this leads to arguments, resentments and frustration all around. If you continue to repeat the same things, there will be a breakdown of communication that will be extremely difficult to fix.

After school checklist with daily chores listed. Items included are: Empty backpack, do homework, put away laundry, play soccer, clear the table, practice guitar, collect, sort laundry, set the table, strip, make bed, parent’s choice and go to Nana’s. All are in neat blocks and they vary by day.

For a younger child, combining a list of chores with helpful pictures is a great way to help. My teenaged daughter has a chore chart, without pictures that gives her a list of expected weekly chores. It helps a great deal. When my son, who had EXTREME difficulties as a young child, needed help, he had several charts that didn’t have words, just pictures. He could choose food in the morning by moving a velcro-backed picture of an egg to the morning food chart, or say, cereal. It helped show him he could make choices of his own and he could convey what he wanted. It isn’t easy (said everyone).

There are times when you have to (breathe in, breathe out here) let some things go. There are going to be days when they don’t feel good, they are having a bad day (or year, such as 2020 as a whole) or something comes up. While you may feel that every single, gawdforsaken thing HAS to be drummed into them to get it done or you will fail parenting for that day, sometimes you just need to say, OK, do it later, or LET IT GO. It will not set their skills back a year, and the example of tolerance and understanding you show when they pretty much announce they are on overload will be its own reward. Being relentless rarely works and teaches them you will not ever give up.

Sometimes, I’ll be in the kitchen, staring at some dishes they left in the sink from the night before. Many times, I’ll just take care of them. My son sometimes will tell me, “Mom, I knew you were sleeping and I didn’t want to wake you up. I was going to do them when I got up, but thank you.” Many times, my children empty the dishwasher, putting away dishes I dirtied/used. It’s just the simplicity of balance and showing that we are all in this together. Or as Elsa would say…

Elsa from “Frozen” with the phrase “Keep Calm and LET IT GO” overlaid

4 thoughts on “Executive Functioning in Autism: When Not Everyone Shows up for the Meeting”

    1. Thanks. My child’s psychiatrist (he’s 23 now, so this was around ’99-’02ish) used to use Boardmaker. I was fortunate enough to have them make the chart for me, laminate it, velcro etc, but there are a lot of blank charts out there for free for making text/picture charts. I hope you find something that works for you. The consistency they provide is very helpful.

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  1. Ben has executive function challenges and processing delays. He’s also 12 (what?! I didn’t authorize this) and very much his own person (read “stubborn”).
    I’ve found that being very direct, and using short sentences works best with him. “Pick up your plate”, then “put your plate in the sink”
    He is capable of understanding more complex thoughts and instructions but usually it’s for a preferred activity.

    Good luck! From about 12 to early 20s daughters are a joy, and the bane of existence 😉💕

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Nice to hear from you. I went through a slump, so I was just doing the Groundhog Day thing and didn’t post. I hear you on the preferred activity thing my friend! My oldest daughter is 33 now, so it’s a completely different world from back then. I try to hold on to those thoughts during the rough times LOL.

      Liked by 1 person

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