Executive functioning and ASD

One skill that many students on the autism spectrum struggle with can be executive functioning. Executive functioning describes the ability to plan, prioritise and carry out tasks, and to regulate your behaviour to achieve these goals.

One way of thinking about executive functioning skills is to recognise that it doesn’t apply to what knowledge a child needs to know, but how to apply that knowledge.

There are some children on the autism spectrum who successfully utilise their executive functioning skills for tasks that are repeated daily and don’t alter, for example brushing their teeth. As simple as this may sound, this task actually requires a number of steps to be carried out in a sequential order for it to be completed successfully. If you get one of the steps in the wrong order, it could effect the outcome (e.g. Putting the toothpaste on the brush after you’ve brushed your teeth).

How does this apply in the classroom? Many children take time to develop their executive functioning skills, and by middle and upper primary we are anticipating that they are demonstrating good time management skills, solid planning and organisation abilities and are able to start prioritising their workloads. However, for a student with ASD, these are not necessarily skills that will develop without support. And in fact, executive functioning may always be areas requiring assistance depending on the nature of the tasks.
How can teachers help? One way that can assist a lot of students with ASD is to provide visual aids and prompts. Here are some suggestions:
1. Provide written/visual (pictures or symbols, for younger students) lists clearly detailing the steps to act as their plan;
2. Provide a written timeframe for each step to be completed;
3. If the student responds well with visual timers you could consider introduce a timer. (The timer function on an iPad is great as it is not just a numerical/digital stop watch counting down to zero but also a visual image of a circle that disappears as the time counts down. The less time there is, the smaller the amount of coloured circle left).NOTE – I would not suggest using a timer if this is something that causes anxiety.
4. If they don’t respond to timers, another option of time management and staying on track is to introduce a teacher prompt. Where possible, visual prompts are preferred rather than verbal prompt, as these can be easier to phase out over time. PLUS, they’re less disruptive to other students in the class and don’t draw extra attention to any particular student.

The type of visual prompt could be a small card/image/word strategically placed on the corner of their desk (or elsewhere in the classroom). The teacher can point to/touch this card which shows a visual of what the child is meant to be doing. It can be something as simple as this:

Screen Shot 2015-09-23 at 9.28.19 pm            Screen Shot 2015-09-23 at 9.29.04 pm
(Just keep in mind that if your student is prone to taking things very literally, then you may need to adjust your visual prompt/symbol accordingly. For example, one prompt above shows a left-hand holding a pen/pencil, which could potentially mean to your student that you expect them to hold their pen/pencil in their left-hand even if they happen to be right-handed).
5. Track the progress visually. Where possible, break down bigger tasks into smaller, more achievable steps. When they are completed, mark it off visually – tick it, cross it off, put a star/stamp next to it (and praise!). Help recognise both the progress and achievement.
7. Praise, reward and encourage. Students who struggle with executive functioning skills aren’t lazy or disorganised, so any achievements and progress they make should be acknowledged and praised.
Generally speaking, the more foresight you give to preparing for these challenges and establishing clear support structures, the more you may be able to alleviate anxiety or frustration that difficulties in this area can potentially cause.
Happy teaching!