Individuals with Autism often have challenges to seamlessly process the incoming information, analyze it and subsequently, act upon it, to initiate an appropriate response for it. Why does this happen?
The problems arise due to difficulties with the Executive Functioning skills and that creates several challenges in their day to day lives. So, what comprises Executive Functioning?
Executive Functioning are a set of mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions and seamlessly juggle between multiple tasks successfully.
• Flexible thinking
• Working memory
• Planning and prioritising
• Task initiation
• Impulse control
• Emotional control
The Executive Functions together act as the brain’s self-management system. So, if there is a breakdown in any one, or more of these processes, it affects the entire sequence.
According to Scottish Autism (an organization providing Autism services in Scotland), due to the dysfunction in Executive Functioning skills, individuals with Autism “experience difficulties with motivation, coping with change, self-regulation and control as well as an impact on practical daily life skills that rely on good self- organisation and planning such as dressing, shopping, and cooking”. (https://www.scottishautism.org/about-autism/about-autism/thinking-styles/executive-dysfunction-theory).
It is not that the dysfunction occurs in all Executive Functioning Skills, but it might occur in some. For example, an individual with Autism may be able to plan, but may not be able to initiate action or organize the information, required to carry out the task. Executive Functioning is a multi-step, multi-faceted set of skills.
According to the Centre for the Developing Child, Harvard University, “Executive function and self-regulation skills depend on three types of brain function: working memory, mental flexibility, and self-control”.
• Working memory governs our ability to retain and manipulate distinct pieces of information over short periods of time.
• Mental flexibility helps us to sustain or shift attention in response to different demands or to apply different rules in different settings.
• Self-control enables us to set priorities and resist impulsive actions or responses.
I will briefly touch upon Working Memory, as it is an integral part of the brain that affects Executive Functioning skills and individuals with Autism or Sensory Processing Disorders usually have issues with Working Memory.
Working Memory is a cognitive system that can, not only hold information for a short period of time, but also allow the manipulation of information. Working memory is important for reasoning, learning and comprehension. Working Memory is the ability to act on past memories and manipulate the information in a new situation. For example, remembering a phone number, or a fact about a person and then using it in an appropriate context.
The key ingredients to working memory are Attention, Focus, Auditory Memory and Visual-spatial Memory.
I will now share some activities that can be done to strengthen the various components of Working Memory and Executive Functioning Skills.
ACTIVITIES TO IMPROVE ATTENTION AND FOCUS:
Word Search Puzzles
ACTIVITIES TO IMPROVE AUDITORY MEMORY
Treasure Hunt Games
Drawing to Instruction (Draw a square, draw a circle inside it etc)
Remembering an Item (Ask the child to remember an item before an activity. Once the activity gets over, you can ask the child what it was)
ACTIVITIES TO IMPROVE VISUAL-SPATIAL MEMORY
Colour Copy Challenge (You can begin with few colours and fewer squares, to not confuse the child)
ACTIVITIES TO IMPROVE IMPULSE CONTROL
Green Light, Red Light
Games that require Turn Taking
ACTIVITIES TO IMPROVE COGNITIVE FLEXIBILITY
Play Pattern Games and Create new patterns
Each member of a group can sing one line of a song, one after the other. So that each person is aware where the last line finishes, and when the next line begins.
Dancing that includes several steps.
Cooking a recipe that involves various steps.
Card Games etc.
Each child has the potential to develop all these skills, given a chance. As a parent and an educator, it is our responsibility to create opportunities for them to learn and make learning a fun process for all involved.
Author Triveni Goswami Vernal
Triveni Goswami Vernal is an Autism advocate, registered Special Educator (CRR A64010) and an Independent Researcher. Her areas of interest include Autism, Disability Rights, Gender, Art and Northeast studies. She is a mum to an 11 year old on the Autism Spectrum.
Creative representation for this blog is done by our extremely talented CreativeSaathi associate Kabir Vernal son of Triveni Goswami Vernal.