Executive Function

Executive function (EF) is a broad term that refers to the cognitive processes that help us regulate, control and manage our thoughts and actions. It includes planning, working memory, attention, problem solving, verbal reasoning, inhibition, cognitive flexibility, initiation of actions and monitoring of actions.

Most people on the autism spectrum have some degree of impaired executive function. Because executive function is such a complex concept, it can be hard to understand how it impacts our lives in practical ways. The slideshow below is a very brief introduction to the components of executive function and how impairment in each area might look in a person’s day-to-day life.

If you’d like to learn about executive function in more detail, there are links to an in-depth four part series below the slide show.

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The above slide show is also available as a PDF: Executive Function Summary PDF (you are welcome to share this PDF but please do not remove the link back to this page or the copyright information)

To learn more about executive function and how it relates to autism, check out this in-depth series of posts:

Executive Function Primer (Part 1):  general definition of executive function with some quick examples, a detailed look at the planning function

Executive Function Primer (Part 2): The remainder of the organization functions–problem solving, verbal reasoning, working memory, and attention

Executive Function Primer (Part 3): The regulation of action functions–inhibition, initiation and monitoring

Executive Function Primer (Part 4): The final part in this series wraps up with a look at cognitive flexibility and how all of the pieces of executive function fit together

33 thoughts on “Executive Function”

  1. Your Executive Function posts have been so brilliant. I’m implementing major changes in my working life at the moment, in light of my diagnosis, and this series has really helped to clarify some things for me. Thank you, you are fantastic and I’m glad you write this blog.

  2. This is the best Executive Function primer I have ever seen. Going to share it with my tribe, with full attribution. Thank you for making this! Do you think you would ever make a video about this, and would you mind if I use it as a starting point in mine? (of course with any result linked back to you with full credit) Thank you again! – Jay

  3. Thank you for this information. It’s so simply put and explained. I had a late diagnosis recently at 52. Have been having lots of struggles throughout my life! Now, there’s a name for it. Although a relief, for me I’m finding it quite emotional to deal with. A new transition and adjustments to make to be able to continue through life.
    Would you mind if I typed out the information on Executive Functioning to read to people I know, as I find it really difficult to explain it in a way for NT’s to grasp? I will let them know where to look for further information. I also quite enjoy your blog as well. Found it by accident. 🙂

    1. There is definitely an adjustment period after diagnosis. Be patient with yourself – the initial emotional upheaval passes and things get better.

      You’re welcome to share the information here with others if you think it will help them understand you better and I appreciate you sending people to the blog if they’d like to learn more. 🙂

  4. Yay, just looked at the short slides and already I know more specifically what these “executive function” problems are all about! I learned in high school that that’s why I couldn’t do homework, but this is good. For instance, I regularly have trouble getting ready for bed and I’ve long been a little embarrassed about that because it’s one of those things that I seriously doubt other people find difficult, but I do!

    Parts I have trouble with, perhaps in order of severity:
    Initiation of actions
    Problem solving

    I definitely have attention issues but it’s kind of either I’m really good at attention and don’t notice other things around me, or I’m not hearing anything anyone’s saying (probably because I’m really focused on my own thoughts even though I’m trying not to be). It can be in-between, maybe say the 3 versions have a roughly equal split of the time.

    I’m good at a lot of working memory things, but visual working memory is not so strong in me. I guess overall it’s inconsistent. Thinking back to my WAIS-V working memory result–it was based on just a test of remembering strings of numbers, and at the time I was automatically “bundling” the numbers even though I sometimes struggle to do things like that. By bundling, I mean combining three or maybe four numbers into one piece of information to keep track of and unpacking them later. So the metric there may be very skewed. I am not very good at mental arithmetic anymore (I was as a child), but on the other hand there are some things I do where I’m obviously tracking and manipulating a lot of information in my head at once and not everyone can do that. So I’m not sure about that one.

    Cognitive flexibility, I’m also really uncertain about. I tend to be resistant to change but not extremely so, and can often adjust quickly if I choose to. I’m a fast learner for many things (sequences of physical movements is DEFINITELY not on that list, see planning). I can switch between being asked questions at work and writing code or emails, but I usually tell someone to let me finish what’s immediately in my mind. I like to commit to certain viewpoints and habits and keep them for life. I have a lot of trouble stopping myself from something I’m interested in, like right now I was supposed to go to the grocery store 6 or 7 hours ago, cook, and study, but I’ve been in the blogosphere and am not eating even though I’m hungry and it’s probably nearing past my bedtime.

    Verbal reasoning, I’m far above the norm at. No reservations there.

    Monitoring of activities, as described in the slide, I’m fine with. There’ve actually been a couple times when I’ve experienced my consciousness split into two “threads” to work on a problem (math or CS), and one thread just handles monitoring, checking accuracy and elegance of a solution, looking for ways to simplify it. The other thread is doing the problem. In general even though I don’t experience 2 threads I have some awareness of mistakes, and I’ve never noticed difficulty performing something in a new environment.

    Planning and problem-solving are kind of interesting because I can technically DO those things. Planning maybe more-so than problem solving since I usually need other people to point out obvious (to them) solutions to real-life problems. But if I sit down with paper, I can use my verbal reasoning abilities to make a plan most of the time. Initiating that task? Not so much. Following through with it? Not so much. And in conversation I often forget things which have just been said, which maybe is a working memory issue, but it’s relevant to planning in that I forget the plan, forget some constraint that the plan has to meet, and so on.

    And actually, for inhibition, I don’t think I’m outside of the typical range, but it is something I notice problems with.

    I think it’s helpful to know that the term applies to many subskills I’m bad at, some I’m phenomenal at, and some I’m probably around average at.

    1. I think it’s pretty common to have a “lumpy” EF profile, where we excel at a few items and really struggle with others, while some are just average. In fact, I think it’s the extremes that really trip us up because that leads to the old “if you can do X why can’t you do Y” where both X and Y are different types of EF-based tasks.

    2. I get you. I understand I have limitations but I make up for it in many other ways. I have a logarithmic learning curve. I take in masses of information in a random messy way which would appear slow to learn but then, further down the line, my brain jumbles it all about and processes it like a library would and voila ! Genius. But then, of course, no one understands it for the next few decades. By which time Ive moved on to something else that fascinates me. You have to love it !

  5. Um, what would you recommend as accomodations for someone struggling with EF? Lately it’s been horrendous for me and people always get annoyed at me because I’m “too smart” to forget stuff/get confused/etc.

  6. Thank you so much for this series – clear, concise and comprehensive.

    EF is a concept I came across only in the last few months. I’ve found it helpful in structuring my understanding of why I find certain things so difficult – extended essays and dissertations at university, but also how relentlessly wearing doing laundry, going to the shops, cooking meals and the like is.

  7. Hi
    I have a question about EF deficits and how it relate to special interests
    Is this why people with autism seem to get absorbed or “hyperfocus” on their special interests to the point where they forget about anything else during this hyperfocus period ?
    Is it an aspie trait ?
    I mean does everyone with autism experience this ” hyperfocus” ?
    or is it only found in autistics who also have the ADD/ADHD comorbid ?

  8. I’m not sure if this precisely fits in the Executive Function, however, it feels like it does to me. As I noted on another thread I ended up marrying someone from another culture that has a very negative outlook regarding people with disabilities. As some point I caught her and one of her friends referring to me with a very disparaging term in her native language – rough translation being something like “dumbfounded tongue tied retard” or some such. Over the years of probing this characterization a repeated theme has been my apparent (according to her cultural context) absence of skill in knowing what to do, having the right words for the situation, etc. I supposed for us ASDers none of this is unfamiliar territory, we all know our various difficulties with mustering “street knowledge” in a timely manner that is consistent with the present context in the minds of the NTs on scene.

  9. This makes so much sense!
    … I have (very) recently been diagnosed Aspie (age 54 🙂 and just by chance, right when I was in the middle of being diagnosed, someone I know on FB made some comment about “Executive dysfunction” and her ASD daughter … and I wondered what she was talking about, googled and found this page … and so much about me and my current and long term problems suddenly all fell into place! … I had previously suspected I may be Aspie, but wasn’t really sure, and figured if I had been I had “grown out of it”/learned the social/etc stuff I didn’t know by instinct and didn’t have too many problems, and thought a diagnosis would only be a meaningless label (how wrong I was!) … but I never understood why I was having all these OTHER problems that were getting worse and worse – a cycle of small issues with organisation/getting things done/etc mainly at work but also a bit at home, and a few communication issues that at the time I didn’t realise were even happening – all making me stressed/depressed > more/bigger issues > more stress > less executive function and a bigger problem … Etc. – which eventually led to me ending up off work “sick” with the stress disorder that lead to me getting the Aspie diagnosis a few weeks ago 🙂 I had never known much about Executive Function or realised that problems with that was part of having ASD and that it could cause me so many odd little problems (which can then snowball into bigger problems when not understood 🙂 … but now I know why I was having the problems I had – I am no longer getting so stressed/depressed/confused about what the heck was going on, and can now break that stupid cycle and find ways to work around/make adjustments/etc for the things I have problems with, rather than get angry at myself about being so slack/incompetent/useless/? … (Which is what I thought I must be, but now know I am not 🙂
    Oh … and it is also extremely interesting … which is kind of weird to be reading about how things do and don’t work in Aspie brains and realising “oh that is why I …” lol
    Andrea (@UTLAU on Twitter 🙂

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one woman's thoughts about life on the spectrum

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