The Mystery of Teens and Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder – Executive Functioning


1 in 68 people in the United States have been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).   80% have Executive Functioning Disorder. 30% to 50% show symptoms of ADHD.  This combination results in serious challenges at home, at school, and in the workplace.  What should we do?

The Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is not a single diagnosis.  As each person has unique strengths and challenges, wide variations are possessed by each diagnosed person.  Factors include difficulties in social skills, repetitive behaviors, and speech/nonverbal communication.

Autism is neurological in nature, characterized by disruptional delays.  Diagnosis can be made as early as 18 months, and typically between the ages of 2 and 3.  Signs may not be as clear for others.  It might not be until they are teens or adults that the question of ASD comes up.

Executive functioning disorder (EFD)  is a weakness in key mental skills.  These challenges impact the ability to prioritize, pay attention, and get started on tasks.  EFD impacts organization, the ability to gather information, and structuring it for evaluation.  It impacts regulation, taking stock of surroundings, and changing behavior in response to it.

Not all people on the Autistic spectrum have executive functioning issues, but some estimates put it as high as 80%.  Intelligence has no correlation, therefore diagnosis can be challenging.

  • Lack of understanding of how behavior impacts others.
  • Difficulty in shifting/transitioning from one task to another.
  • Challenge doing things based on previous experience.
  • Limited flexibility in thinking (rigid patterns).
  • Self-monitoring impacted, especially under stress.

A significant amount of research has been done on Autism Spectrum Disorder and executive functioning.  In comparison of students with moderate learning disabilities, students with ASD have a greater impairment in completing staged tasks.

Executive functioning has a significant impact outside the classroom as well.  Teens and adults have significant impairments in communication, play, and social relationships.  Adaptation to varying environments are greater than age-related peers with ADHD.  Personal monitoring is key as people with Autism struggle with independence as well.

Medical professionals should be sought for both health and educational interventions.  Exams are often used in conjunction with surveys/questionnaires for diagnosis.  Self-reporting is most common with adults.  It is uncertain as to whether intelligence testing measures characteristics related to Autism.  Research continues.

Discrete trial teaching is a technique used by psychologists and other professionals to modify behaviors and practice executive functioning skills.  The person is given the opportunity to produce an organized reinforcement for a successful response.

Students on the Autism Spectrum face challenges in the classroom, especially in the upper levels.  Instructional supports should reflect the segmented EF process.  Use checklists, planners/calendars to support organization.

  1. Analyze tasks for what needs to be done.
  2. Plan how to handle each task.
  3. Break down the plan into a series of steps.
  4. Allocate time to carry out the plan.
  5. Make adjustments as needed.

People on the Autism Spectrum are often intelligent and focused.  This makes them an asset in the workplace.  Keep in mind, employers are legally required to provide accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  Providing a supportive workplace creates a more comfortable environment for everyone.

  • Provide a private work space in a safe environment.
  • Identify a go-to person for feedback and reassurances.
  • Give direct, unambiguous instructions, while avoiding subtleties.
  • Reduce stress resulting from collaboration and other social gatherings.
  • Be careful in judging behavior that may result with misunderstandings (unaware).

Whether at home, school, or work, teens and adults with Autism need support in skill acquisition that underlies performance.  This should include difficulties following daily routines, getting tasks done efficiently and on time, and forgetting assignments/following schedules

There should always be a backup plan.  Identify who to call or ask for help.  Consider what can be put off and what can’t.  Create strategies for who can swap strengths with to get things done.

What do you consider to be your greatest need?





2 responses to “The Mystery of Teens and Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder – Executive Functioning”

  1. Brenda Avatar

    An adult person who is my friends daughter (friend is alcoholic and bipolar with physical problem, back right now) and her daughter is ADHD (aggressive because she’s not taking meds scheduled all the time). Mom doesn’t help and didn’t want her on meds. She did prison time dealing with drugs. She was raped at 13 by her stepfather and she is so smart. I was trying to see her and her mom has avoided this. Mom was abusive to her daughter and hasn’t responded to her about how much she regrets this. Possible trauma to head. I’m trying to share information with her. I am not speaking to mom right now but will (behavior) and mom is going through stressful time dealing with other child and husband that with critical health problems. Both do have routine with home such as cleaning, washing and cooking. Daughter moved away I suspect because of these problems with mom and step dad. Daughter in late 30’s. She was stripper and she seems like she’s not taking precautions and possibly her meds for her emotional well-being. I suspect more to it. Don’t know what to do. I am concerned for her emotional well-being and future plans. Weight surgery messed up every one of them(2 daughters and mom). Big influence on family. Suggestions?

    1. Edie Brown Avatar
      Edie Brown

      I appreciate that you shared your experiences. First, read the blog post on adults with ADHD. Take a look at the substance abuse post too. They talk about some of the issues that you highlighted. There are strategies that might help.

      Email me afterwards so we can chat.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.