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Executive Function and Autism

When children have an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), they process information much differently from typically developing children. These kids tend to notice the details of a situation but have trouble organizing and retrieving them later on. Problems with executive function in autism are common, and they can affect certain cognitive abilities. Children with autism may experience mild or severe executive function challenges, and there are a variety of ways these difficulties can impact their daily lives.

Trouble Maintaining Thoughts

It may be difficult for a child with autism to follow complex directions that involve more than just a single step. For example, if you ask a child to go to the living room and put their coat on, they need to access multiple pieces of information to complete the task. Learning how to break down steps, a key executive function skill, can help children with autism to organize their thoughts and follow multi-step instructions.

Organization Issues

Kids with autism sometimes have trouble sequencing thoughts, which can cause problems when they need to retrieve them in a specific order. We might not notice it, but organization plays an essential role in our everyday lives. When we need to get ready for the day, run errands, or complete work, we rely on an “order of operations” to execute tasks in the right steps. Children with autism who lack this key executive function skill often struggle at making a plan and sticking to it.

Getting Stuck on Ideas

One common trait for children with autism is a tendency to become attached to a routine. When a routine is changed, they may become irritated and refuse to adapt to the new way of doing things. This can lead to problems in a classroom setting, where it’s important to shift gears between lessons and activities. In more severe cases of autism, a child may become attached to specific parts of a conversation and have trouble letting go once the topic has changed. While it might seem like stubbornness at first, children who cannot adapt to new circumstances likely have issues with “cognitive flexibility.” This is an important executive function skill that may be impaired in children with autism.

Difficulty Seeing the Larger Picture

Many children on the autism spectrum have an eye for detail, but have problems piecing bits of information together to create a larger, cohesive thought. When children cannot understand the relationship between details, they struggle with conceptual thinking. It is essential for children experiencing these difficulties to have a support system in place to help them see the larger picture. It is possible for children with autism to wrap their heads around big ideas; they just need the right guidance to get there.

There is no such thing as a “classic case of autism” because the disorder occurs on a spectrum and can present itself with a wide variety of symptoms. Executive function challenges typically accompany autism, and it’s important to identify these problems early. When a parent, guardian, or teacher recognizes a child’s executive function difficulties at an early age, it is easier to diagnose mental conditions, such as autism, that may affect their ability to learn and socialize.

At Reflection Sciences, we developed the Minnesota Executive Function Scale to assess learning readiness and some of the earliest signs of executive function challenges in children. Learn more about how to quickly find a child’s place on this scale relative to national and local norms.

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