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Executive Function

Executive function

The psychological ability to get things done.

Autistic Glossary – AMASE

Executive Function (n) is a set of cognitive processes that help us self-regulate so we can effectively plan, prioritize, and sustain effort toward our goals.

Executive function is kind of like, the CEO of the brain.

It helps us go from wanting to do a thing to actually getting it done.

And there’s a lot that goes into that.

The cognitive processes that make up executive function are things like:

  • response inhibition, which helps us not be impulsive.
  • working memory, which helps us hold information in our head temporarily or remember it while we work with it.
  • Set shifting, which is what helps us shift between tasks that have different cognitive demands.
  • And the ability to delay immediate gratification so we can achieve long term rewards. In ADHD the research term for this is ‘delay aversion’.

These functions help us with what people often call “being an adult”.

What is Executive Function and Why Do We Need it? – YouTube
What is Executive Function and Why Do We Need it? – YouTube

Executive function/dysfunction: Executive function is the term used to describe how the brain initiates tasks. For neurodivergent folk, our executive function is often dysfunctional. This means we can often find it difficult to start new tasks. A way you may experience it is when you are sitting down, you may be screaming internally that you need to go and get some food, but your body seems unwilling to co-operate. Having executive dysfunction does not mean you are lazy, or do not want to do the task, it means you may be unable to do the task.

salti the Late Diagnosed Autistic on Tumblr
What is Executive Function – How it Relates to ADHD

Executive function is a set of cognitive or thinking skills that are responsible for the following:

  • planning, organization and prioritizing,
  • initiating actions,
  • self-inhibition,
  • self-monitoring your behavior,
  • being able to shift your attention between tasks
  • and working memory.
What is Executive Function – How it Relates to ADHD – YouTube

When psychologist Russell Barkley (1997) refers to that space between stimulus and response, he calls it “the point of performance.” It is that particular time and place where we are called upon to recognize our options and commit ourselves to a course of action. It is a window of opportunity that is available only for a limited time. According to Barkley, response inhibition is the key to keeping that window of opportunity open long enough to consider our options and choose our path. Barkley cites response inhibition as the most fundamental of the brain’s executive functions and the gateway to accessing the other executive functions such as working memory, cognitive flexibility, planning, and problem solving (Barkley, 1997).

Executive Function and Child Development

Barkley (1997) describes executive function as self-directed mental strategies that (1) occur during a delay in responding to an event; (2) serve to modify the eventual response; and (3) improve the future consequences related to the event. Barkley and others have posed theories that explain how these mental processes organize and order our behavior, allowing us to direct our actions through time toward a goal. Executive functions involve mental processes such as:

  • Working memory: holding several pieces of information in mind while we try to do something with them—for example, understand and solve a problem or carry out a task.
  • Response inhibition: inhibiting actions that interfere with our intentions or goals.
  • Shifting focus: interrupting an ongoing response in order to direct attention to other aspects of a situation that are important for goal attainment.
  • Cognitive flexibility: generating alternative methods of solving a problem or reaching a goal.
  • Self-monitoring: checking on one’s own cognitions and actions to ensure that they are in line with one’s intentions.
  • Goal orientation: creating and carrying out a multistep plan for achieving a goal in a timely fashion, keeping the big picture in mind.
Executive Function and Child Development

That, in the final analysis, is the essence of executive function: self-directed strategies for accomplishing one’s intentions and goals. The process of creating and using the wrist list allowed Jon to achieve that all-important self-regulation: He no longer had to rely on his mother’s reminders and prompting to complete his chores. According to Barkley, both the internalized and externalized forms of behavior achieve self-regulation “and so are ‘executive’ in nature” (1997, p. 58).

Executive Function and Child Development

WE HOPE THAT THIS book will inspire other therapists to plan playful, child-friendly interventions to help children improve self-regulation. In planning interventions, we are guided by these essential practices and beliefs.

  1. We help the family view the child’s self-regulation problems through the lens of executive function. The concept of executive function provides a specific focus for intervention. We tell the family that we will work on improving the child’s working memory, response inhibition, cognitive flexibility, or goal orientation and explain the current difficulty in terms of that function.
  2. We engage the child as an active partner in his or her treatment. All too often treatment for self-regulation is something done to the child or for the child. We make it clear from the beginning that children will be actively involved in understanding and solving their own problems.
  3. We believe that “learning leads development.” Just because a child has not yet developed in keeping with his or her peers, doesn’t mean that he or she can’t develop or that we have to wait passively for some future maturation to take hold. Carefully planned learning activities, linked to a specific executive function, can often foster development.
  4. We believe in the therapeutic power of play. Play engages children in the therapy process. And a carefully planned play intervention can be one of those learning activities that help lead development.
  5. We are ever mindful of the significance of the “point of performance.” Effective interventions are those that can be put in place at the point of performance—the real-life circumstance in which the child is having difficulty with self-regulation. Proper scaffolding allows children to experience success in regulating their thoughts, emotions, and behavior at the exact times that they are having difficulties. Scaffolding can be removed as the child’s executive functions develop, or it can be left in place with the child becoming progressively more responsible for providing his or her own scaffolding.
Executive Function and Child Development

Further reading,