Executive Functioning: Strategies to Support Individuals with Autism and Related Challenges By Dr. Gina Cosgrove

Executive Functioning: Strategies to Support Individuals with Autism and Related Challenges By Dr. Gina Cosgrove

Executive Functioning: Strategies to Support Individuals with Autism and Related Challenges By Dr. Gina Cosgrove

On October 19, Dr. Gina Cosgrove presented “Executive Functioning: Strategies to Support Individuals with Autism and Related Challenges” at Transitions’ “Strategies to Build Independence for Students with Autism, ADHD and Other Learning Differences” conference. Her presentation covered the basics of how to evaluate a student’s executive functioning needs and reviewed research-based strategies to help with planning interventions and implementing them in different settings. We would like to share what we learned from Dr. Cosgrove in this series of posts.

Overview – Why Teach Executive Functioning Skills?
Executive functioning training helps strengthen three main developmental skills:

  1. Productivity with tasks
  2. Organization and efficiency
  3. Self-regulation, which includes inhibitions, filters and managing emotions

Executive functioning skills provide a foundation for higher level thinking. Building them means building more independent learners who don’t rely on aides and parents to do everything for them. The skills the students learn will last them a lifetime and be applicable to countless common life situations.

Many kids with autism and related challenges simply aren’t learning things incidentally. It is not a behavior issue; it’s just that certain skills that other kids learn intuitively by observation don’t come naturally to them. They need to be directly taught those skills. And if those skills aren’t taught when the individuals are young, they won’t be functional as adults. When teaching executive functioning skills, it’s important to teach “how we think” as opposed to exclusively “what to do.” This way the student will learn methods that help them in all situations, rather than limited instructions on what to do in specific instances.

Using technology is a great intervention for this population. Taking a picture of what’s on a whiteboard instead of copying it down by hand is a very simple and effective way to get a student to obtain the necessary information as well as be more independent, as they aren’t relying on an aide to do the work for them.

It is important that any instruction emphasizes mastery motivation. Mastery motivation is when an individual wants to perform a task just for the sake of completing it. They will repeat the task over and over because they want to get it right and be good at it, regardless of external motivators. Too much support kills mastery motivation in students with executive functioning challenges and creates learned helplessness. Robbing students of opportunities to do things themselves inhibits their ability to learn to do anything without support.

In addition, too much extrinsic, tangible motivation will decrease intrinsic motivation. If one isn’t careful the student will perform tasks just to get a reward, not for the sake of doing the task, and in the absence of a reward they won’t do it at all. In the adult world, extrinsic rewards aren’t very common. In the same vein, too many threats don’t work either. Students must learn to self-reward through self-praise and self-reliance.

More than anything, decreasing reliance on extrinsic rewards creates more active learners. Effort should still be rewarded, even if the task wasn’t completed perfectly, but should be accompanied by gentle reminders, prompting and small cues rather than handholding.

Start with Assessment of Skills
This is as simple as parents, teachers or even the child themselves completing a checklist. The goal is to identify which skills are lagging so the child’s support network can develop a plan to teach them those skills. The assessment should also make it possible to establish a motivational system that will work best for the student in question.

We hope these tips and strategies are helpful to you. Good luck and check this blog again next week for the next installment in this series.