Executive functioning

By Brooke Trenwith

I am currently the Project Leader and Lead Facilitator of a programme called Survive Revive Thrive being run by Altogether Autism. It is ‘by autistics, for autistics’, and one of the main discussion points to date has been around Executive Functioning.

The presence or absence of strong executive functioning skills often influences how individuals are perceived in terms of their moral character.

Those with strong executive functioning abilities are frequently viewed as responsible, reliable, and disciplined. They are seen as having good self-control, effective problem-solving skills, and the ability to follow through on commitments.

Conversely, individuals struggling with executive functioning may be unfairly judged as lazy, irresponsible, or lacking in willpower. These moral character judgments can be particularly harmful, as they overlook the underlying cognitive challenges and may lead to negative social and professional consequences.

Understanding that executive functioning is a cognitive skill set, not a measure of moral worth. It is crucial to foster empathy and support for those facing these challenges.

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A true rejection of ableism helps prevent the shame that many neurodivergent individuals feel when their executive functioning is ‘not up to standard.’

For me, my classification of ableism is that ‘you can do this if only you try hard enough.’

What is Executive Functioning?

Executive functioning encompasses a range of cognitive processes essential for goal-oriented behaviour, planning, and problem-solving. These processes are critical in managing our daily lives and achieving long-term goals.

When executive functioning is compromised, it can lead to significant challenges.

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Working Memory: Holding Information to Complete Tasks

Working memory refers to the ability to hold and manipulate information over short periods. This skill is crucial for tasks such as following multi-step instructions, solving problems, and keeping track of information while engaging in activities. Challenges in working memory can lead to difficulties in academic, professional, and personal contexts.

Managing Challenges

  1. Chunking Information
    Breaking down information into smaller, manageable chunks can help in retaining and recalling details more effectively.
  1. Visualisation Techniques
    Creating mental images or diagrams can assist in holding and manipulating information.
  1. Use of Mnemonics
    Acronyms, rhymes, and other mnemonic devices can aid in memory retention.
  1. External Aids
    Tools such as sticky notes, apps, luggage labels and planners can support working memory by offloading some of the cognitive load.

Sequencing: Arranging Steps to Complete Tasks

Sequencing involves the ability to arrange steps in a logical order to complete tasks. This skill is fundamental for everything from following a recipe to completing a complex project. Difficulties with sequencing can result in disorganised actions and inefficiency.

Managing Challenges

  1. Checklists
    Creating detailed checklists can help in organising and sequencing tasks.
  1. Flowcharts
    Visual representations of steps can clarify the order of tasks.
  1. Practice and Repetition
    Repeated practice of task sequences can reinforce the correct order and improve proficiency. Linking some tasks to already ingrained habits.
  1. Task Breakdown
    Dividing tasks into smaller, sequential steps can simplify complex activities.

Regulation & Self-Control: Managing Emotions and Impulses

Regulation and self-control involve managing your emotions and impulses to stay focused and behave “appropriately”. This aspect of executive functioning is crucial for maintaining composure, making rational decisions, and avoiding distractions.

Managing Challenges

  1. Mindfulness and Relaxation Techniques
    Practices such as meditation and deep breathing can help in managing stress and emotional responses.
  1. Cognitive Behavioural Strategies
    Techniques to reframe negative thoughts and develop positive coping strategies can enhance self-control.
  1. Routine and Structure
    Establishing consistent routines can provide stability and reduce impulsive behaviour.
  1. Trauma-Informed Practice Strategies
    Help all understand what is happening biologically in the body.

Initiation & Flexibility: Starting, Pausing, and Adapting to Tasks

Initiation involves the ability to begin tasks without undue procrastination, while flexibility refers to the capacity to adapt to changing demands and pivot when necessary. Challenges in these areas can result in procrastination, rigidity, and an inability to adapt to new circumstances.

Managing Challenges

  1. Setting Clear Goals
    Defining specific, achievable goals can provide direction and motivation to start tasks.
  1. Time Management Techniques
    Strategies such as the Pomodoro Technique can help in breaking the cycle of procrastination.
  1. Cognitive Flexibility Training
    Engaging in activities that require adaptability, such as puzzles and strategy games, can enhance cognitive flexibility.
  1. Developing Contingency Plans
    Preparing for potential changes in plans can make adapting to new situations smoother and less stressful.

Executive functioning plays a huge role in how we think, plan, and get things done every day. By getting a handle on the challenges tied to working memory, sequencing, regulation and self-control, and initiation and flexibility, we can find ways to make life a bit easier. Using simple techniques and asking for help when needed can boost our performance, make us more productive, and improve our overall well-being. Plus, understanding that these skills are about how our brains work—not about our moral character—can help create a more understanding and supportive world for everyone.