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Autism and Executive Function

While many individuals with autism have incredible memories, especially for facts and minor details, they can struggle with executive functioning skills. These skills include the ability to manage emotions, organize and plan, pay attention, start tasks and remain focused on them, verbal reasoning, and inhibition.

As an adult with autism, it’s important to consider the latest evidence-based methods in terms of executive dysfunction. The goal of treatment centers, such as the Adult Autism Center, is to help adults with autism reach their potential so that they can experience the highest possible quality of life.

What Is Executive Dysfunction in Autism?

The human brain is complex, and for those living with autism, select tasks can be challenging.

Those in the autism community use the term executive function to describe the wide range of skills associated with one’s cognitive function. These skills fit under three distinct umbrellas:

  • Working memory — This mental skill is critical for learning and doing everyday tasks. This is your ability to hold on to information in your mind so that you can use it in some way.
  • Cognitive flexibility — This is the ability to switch between two separate concepts and think about something in more than one way.
  • Inhibitory control — This is the ability to ignore distractions and often relates to self-control.

The Autism Awareness Centre reported that up to 80% of individuals with autism suffer from executive function disorder, and while most research has been conducted in children and adolescents with autism, this study demonstrates that executive function difficulties persist into adulthood. These difficulties closely mirror those found among younger individuals with autism. Issues with flexibility, planning, and organization represent the most significant issues. However, it is important to note that executive function difficulties can present themselves differently from one individual to the next.

For example, one individual may notice small details with ease yet struggle to see how these details fit into a bigger picture. Since executive dysfunction can lead to issues with organizing and sequencing thoughts, others may find it challenging to complete everyday tasks, such as getting dressed, cooking, or grooming.

Evidence for Executive Dysfunction in Autism

The relationship between executive dysfunction and the behavioral symptoms present in autism has continued to be an area of great interest among researchers. Since individuals with autism spectrum disorders often show impairments across a range of cognitive tasks, researchers often view executive dysfunction as a central feature of autism.

This scientific article explains that there is strong support that the prefrontal cortex plays a major role in executive functioning. This means that in relation to symptoms of autism, abnormalities may exist in this region of the brain. However, this theory is complex, as not all forms of executive processing are commonly impaired among individuals with autism. For example, while cognitive flexibility is often impaired, fundamental cognitive control remains relatively unaffected. This has been shown through the Stroop task, as children with autism often outperform typically developing children.

At this time, evidence of executive dysfunction in autism remains mixed. However, a significant amount of research supports the relationships between executive dysfunction and autism, including this meta-analysis.

Autism and Executive Function — What’s Next?

The first step in assisting those with autism is to understand executive dysfunction better. As researchers continue to study this relationship, it’s important to help individuals with autism overcome the challenges they experience on a day-to-day basis.

As discussed, each individual is unique, which is why there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution.

While many of the suggestions are directed at children with autism, there are steps you can take to assist adults struggling with executive function skills. Executive functioning is a complex system, but providing interventions doesn’t need to be.

Here are some suggestions to help address executive dysfunction in adults with autism.

Use a Visual System

For many individuals with autism, being able to visualize their way through specific processes or tasks is incredibly helpful. This evidence-based intervention leverages the use of visuals, preferably actual photographs, to guide an individual through the steps of whatever it is they wish to achieve. For example, visualizing the steps involved in an individual’s morning routine.

These visual supports will allow you to:

  • Create schedules, displaying visual blocks of time
  • Show the sequential steps involved in a task
  • Make a to-do list
  • Communicate successfully with those who are less or non-verbal

Take Part in ABA Therapy

ABA therapy is often used to help improve executive dysfunction with the goal of encouraging individuals to build positive executive function skills. An ABA therapist can help you or your loved one better understand specific behaviors, suggesting tactics to improve their experiences in everyday life. The Adult Autism Center is the first of its kind, offering ABA therapy and hands-on training for adults with autism. Our goal is to help adults with autism grow and expand in areas such as academics, culinary, home living, fitness, social skills, and more — all while remaining mindful of the dynamic relationship between autism and executive function.

Programs That Encourage Personal Growth

The programs offered at the Adult Autism Center of Lifetime Learning encourage independent living skills, supported employment, vocational training, and community integration. Learn more about our programs before contacting our dedicated team.

We also welcome you to fill out our referral form so we can get to know you and your personal needs. We’re here for you every step of the way!

Heather Davis graduated from Texas A&M University with her Ph.D. in Special Education and is a Board-Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA). Heather has spent 18 years of her professional career working with children diagnosed with autism and their families. In her previous role as the Clinical Director of the Carmen B. Pingree Autism Center of Learning, her focus was to provide on-going staff training to ensure the delivery of high-quality, evidence-based services to meet the individualized needs of each child diagnosed with autism. She is inspired to continue to work in this field by the progress clients demonstrate which helps to improve their quality of life. Hearing individuals speak their first words, gain independent living skills, and demonstrate skills families never thought possible are what drive her to become a better clinician and continue to work with these important members of our community. In her free time, Heather enjoys running, reading, and spending time with her twin girls and husband exploring all the wonderful landscapes of Utah.

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