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3 Tips to Improve Executive Functioning Skills for Adults with Autism

girl smiling while doing paper schoolwork and laptop

As learners, autistic students possess many strengths. Many students with autism have impressive memories and can recall small details for great lengths of time. Some have an increased ability to follow clear expectations and directions, while some are able to focus extremely well. 

At the same time, up to 80% of those on the autism spectrum experience difficulty with executive functioning

Executive functioning is an umbrella term that encompasses complex systems in the brain necessary to accomplish given tasks. These are skills such as:

  • Working memory – a person’s ability to remember information for brief periods of time to use within that time
  • Emotional regulation – a person’s ability to control their emotional state
  • Flexibility – a person’s ability to think about something in multiple ways or shift their thinking
  • Impulse control – a person’s ability to avoid distractions
  • Planning – a person’s ability to prioritize tasks they need to finish
  • Initiating a task – a person’s ability to start something from a relaxed state

Without some of these skills, school, work, and daily life can easily become full of challenges. It makes it difficult to organize, to pay attention, and to adhere to deadlines. However, there are strategies to improve executive functioning skills as an adult with autism, and use them to enhance your independence.

  1. Use Visual Supports

One way to improve executive functioning skills, particularly working memory, is to create visual supports around your living space. 

Many young adults with autism benefit from a visual chart displaying a daily routine. Since photographs have been proven to be the most effective, take your phone out one day to photograph your morning. Include pictures of things like checking email, daily living habits, what to pack in your backpack, etc. Hang them in the order in which you would like to complete the tasks. If it helps, put the photos on a whiteboard so you can check them off daily. 

You can also make yourself reminder cards that can come along with you. Write yourself a message including a visual that will remind you to do something you often forget. They can be as simple as reminding yourself to raise your hand and participate in a college course that prioritizes student discussion, or a card in your shoe for the next morning that reminds you to bring the money you need for public transit that day. 

  1. Utilize Calming Techniques

A valuable skill to help with emotional regulation is to learn what it feels like when you are starting to experience sensory or emotional overload, and strategies to utilize right then and there. Some that may work for you could be:

  • Taking a deep breath
  • Counting to a favorite number
  • Taking a walk outside
  • Listening to music
  • Playing with a fidget toy
  • Dancing or jumping up and down
  • Eating a crunchy snack

Be sure you practice these strategies at home before using them out. That way, you will be more comfortable and feel more prepared.

  1. Employ Organizational Strategies

Simple organizational strategies can make a big impact. Start with your phone. Put important appointments and activities in your calendar, and be sure to add a reminder so your phone can do the work of alerting you. 

Use color coding as a helpful visual strategy. Utilize color coded sticky notes while studying for a college exam, use folders of different colors to organize important documents, or make a schedule on a board in your room that color codes various activities. 

As you transition towards independence in daily living, and potentially further education, working to improve executive functioning skills can be extremely beneficial. At our Gersh Experience residential program, our residents are given the tools for whatever next step they desire, including honing executive functioning skills. Don’t hesitate to contact us for more information.


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