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Executive functioning challenges, also known as executive dysfunction, are a common difficulty of autism spectrum disorder. Any parent of a child with autism should understand executive functioning, what it means, and how they can help their child with autism overcome any associated challenges.


What is Executive Functioning?

Executive functioning refers to a person’s ability to process information. It includes the following functions:

  •  Organizing
  • Planning
  • Paying attention
  • Inhibiting inappropriate responses
  • Problem-solving
  • Working Memory
  • Attention
  • Initiation
  • Cognitive flexibility

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 with autism pay attention to minor details but have trouble seeing how these details fit into a bigger picture. Others have trouble maintaining their attention in the classroom or other settings.

As you can see from the aforementioned list, executive functioning impacts so many different areas of the brain and so many different functions. This is why executive dysfunction can be difficult to diagnose at first. It isn’t always black and white.

Executive functioning challenges can come in many different forms, but one of the most common issues that parents of children with autism notice is poor impulse control. In fact, this is one of the first signs that parents notice in children who struggle with executive functioning. It is important to know what executive function impairment looks like in daily life so that, as parents, you can better diagnose what is going on with your child.

What Does Executive Function Impairment (Executive Dysfunction) Look Like in Autism?

In day-to-day life, executive function impairment can cause several challenges. Parents of children with autism may not notice some of these signs at first as they can be explained away as other struggles or even personality traits.

However, many times, the best way to determine if it is an executive function issue is to see if you notice several of these signs together at once. This includes the following signs and signals parents may notice in children with autism:

  • Forgetting to pack a school bag or packing the wrong things in their bags.
  • Difficulty organizing a calendar or a personal schedule.
  • Struggling with homework (losing, forgetting, not completing it).
  • Inability to begin or complete a simple task.
  • Forgetting about or running late for appointments.
  • Constantly misplacing items.
  • Accidentally skipping meals or showers.
  • Difficulty recognizing a task that needs to be done.
  • Struggling to break a task into smaller steps.
  • Difficulty self-monitoring, or figuring out what is “wrong” in their body or the environment around them.
  • Forgetting or mixing up practical instructions (i.e. directions, chores, etc.).
  • Difficulty keeping up in conversations, even with their peers.
  • Forgetting names and/or faces.

Individuals with autism who struggle with daily tasks like this likely have an issue with executive functioning. The good news is with professional help and intervention, children struggling with autism spectrum disorder can get the help that they need to better handle executive dysfunction.

children at a table

Treatments and Supports

One of the first questions that parents of children with executive functioning have has to do with treatment options and avenues for support.  The good news is, the more advancements there are in autism treatment, the more therapies and support systems there are for those with autism, and the more resources there are for parents and their children.

There is no one blanket treatment for complex challenges like this. Treatment options are specific to individual cases. For individuals with autism, treating comorbid conditions is actually one of the most effective ways to help reduce executive function difficulties. This includes side effects and symptoms such as depression, anxiety and GI issues. Treating these conditions can ultimately help with executive function challenges.

There are other treatment options as well. For some, organizational aids, timers, notebooks, assistive devices, etc. help with organization and memory. Many times, it’s working with children to help them help themselves.

In other, more serious cases, medication and behavior therapy can be used to help with executive functioning. Many times, a combination of the right medications along with regular behavioral therapy will effectively help children control certain complications while learning to adjust their behavior to help themselves through these challenges.

Recent studies have found encouraging results for the positive effect of mindfulness and physical practices on executive function impairment. Physical exercise, movement and the positive effects that come from this can drastically help children with autism who struggle with these executive functioning blocks.

These can include yoga, meditation, martial arts, aerobics, and other forms of exercise, which all require dedicated and repetitive practice. These are all great ways for children to have an outlet, to help keep their minds and bodies healthy, learn discipline, and get into a routine.

It may take some time and some trial and error to find a combination of support systems, treatments, and therapies to find results. The most important thing to keep in mind is that stability and consistency are so important when it comes to helping with executive function challenges.



Executive function challenges are a difficulty presented in those with autism and one that can make everyday tasks difficult. This is why it is so important to not only understand the signs of this struggle so that you can diagnose it but to be aware of the different treatments and support services available for those who struggle with their executive functioning abilities.

 If you are ready to work with the best ABA therapy provider in New York, New Jersey or Indiana, give us a call at (732) 402-0297. Our dedicated team is ready to help and we will treat you like family.

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