Employment and the Youth with Autism Spectrum Disorders

Executive Function and Organization

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Executive function is a set of mental skills that help people learn and complete tasks more independently. These skills are controlled by an area of the brain called the frontal lobe. Executive function helps a person:

  • Manage time
  • Pay attention
  • Switch focus
  • Plan and organize
  • Remember details
  • Avoid saying or doing the wrong thing
  • Do things based on your experience
  • Multi-task

Executive Function and Individuals with ASD

Individuals with ASD may have difficulty with processes such as organization, attention and mental planning. These differences with “executive function” can cause a person to approach the completion of a job differently than it is presented by the supervisor or job coach. Indication of executive function challenges may appear as:

  • Being overwhelmed by a relatively “simple” task
  • Difficulty getting started or knowing what to do when finished
  • Being easily distracted, with difficulty re-engaging with the task or activity
  • Viewing a simple problem-solving situation as insurmountable
  • Having a messy or disorganized work area, even if the individual desires routine and predictability

Planning and preparing are skills are associated with executive function. In the video clip below a young man is using visual supports to plan and create a list for the grocery store. This strategy can be replicated to many environments as a way to address an executive function challenge.

To further understand the importance of executive function, consider the two types of executive functions.

Organization: The person gathers information and structures or arranges the information so that it can be evaluated and understood.

Regulation: The person processes the environmental information and determines what he should do in response (how to react or what behavior is needed).

To further explain these two executive function processes, reflect on the previous video. Josh is using pictures to organize a grocery list of items he will buy at the store. Josh will then use the list to help regulate his behavior when he is at the store by remembering to only purchase the items on the list and resist spending too much money on unnecessary items.

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