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How can I help my autistic child with executive functioning?

Are you a parent or educator grappling with how to best support a student with autism?


Do you find yourself wondering why your child or student struggles with tasks that seem straightforward to others?


Is the challenge of managing time, emotions, or even simple day-to-day activities becoming a roadblock to academic and social growth?


If you've found yourself asking any of these questions, you're not alone.


Navigating the complex landscape of autism can be a challenging endeavor, especially when it intersects with issues related to executive functioning.


In this article, we'll explore the specific executive function skills that many autistic children struggle with, delve into real-life scenarios they might face in various educational settings, and discuss how executive function coaching can provide targeted interventions to help them succeed.


What executive function skills do autistic children struggle with?

Autistic children often face unique challenges in various areas of executive functioning, although it's important to remember that each child is different.


Common difficulties include:

  • Initiating tasks

  • Regulating emotions

  • Managing time

  • Retaining information in working memory

  • Staying organized

  • Controlling impulses

  • Sustaining attention

  • Planning and prioritizing tasks

  • Adapting to new situations

  • And self-monitoring their behavior.

While not all autistic children will struggle in every area, these are frequent challenges may require targeted support and interventions from parents and healthcare providers.


What are scenarios that autistic students struggle in as it relates to school?


Middle School

Middle school students with autism may find everyday tasks like remembering locker combinations or navigating to different classrooms overwhelming.


The jump from elementary school often involves juggling multiple teachers and classrooms, requiring increased organization and time management skills.


Social situations, like figuring out where to sit during lunch or how to participate in group projects, can also present challenges. These issues can compound the anxiety and emotional regulation difficulties often faced by autistic children.


High School

High school brings a more complex class schedule and greater academic expectations.


Autistic students may struggle with initiating and completing long-term projects or multi-page essays. There's also increased pressure to succeed academically while navigating social landscapes, like prom or extracurricular activities.


These social events can be stress-inducing and confusing, requiring nuanced social skills and emotional regulation that may not come naturally.


College

In college, the challenges often center around self-directed learning and increased personal responsibility.


Autistic students may struggle to manage their own study schedule without the regular reminders and structure that come with K-12 schooling.


Sensory overload can be a real concern, especially in large lecture halls or busy campus centers.


Additionally, long lectures may demand sustained focus and efficient note-taking skills, which can be challenging for students who struggle with attention and working memory.


How can executive function coaching help autistic students?

Executive function coaching can offer targeted strategies to help autistic children navigate daily challenges.


By focusing on specific skill areas like task initiation, emotional regulation, and time management, coaching provides practical, hands-on techniques to improve functioning.


Using methods such as visual aids, timers, and structured environments, coaches help these children build essential skills, often in a one-on-one setting tailored to their individual needs. This personalized approach allows for real-time feedback and adjustment, fostering autonomy and confidence.


Over time, coaching can lead to significant improvements in academic performance, social interactions, and overall well-being, equipping autistic children with the tools they need for more independent living and school management.


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About the author

Sean G. McCormick is the founder of Executive Function Specialists, an online coaching business that guides middle, high school, and college students in overcoming procrastination, disorganization and anxiety by teaching time management, prioritization and communication skills so they feel motivated, prepared, and empowered.


He also founded the Executive Function Coaching Academy which trains special education teachers, school psychologists and other professionals to support students with AD/HD and executive function challenges.


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