Accommodating Executive Function Deficits is Important for School Success

Individuals on the spectrum often need special modifications at school. Because everyone is unique, all teachers should have a written document explaining a little about how the student learns best and outlining agreed upon adaptations. There are many lists of possible accommodations for students on the autism spectrum, but they must be tailored to each child. So much depends on each individual’s abilities and what areas they find challenging. For most children, however, one key to success is an accepting and supportive environment.

Many people on the spectrum have problems with executive functions. These are the abilities that allow planning and prioritizing. These mental processes help us make decisions and monitor behavior. One common analogy is that executive function does for the brain what a conductor does for an orchestra.

When executive functions are limited, one major area of deficit is organization. These are the skills needed to organize one’s thoughts, tasks, things, and time. The deficit can make it difficult to organize work, plan and manage projects, brainstorm feasible solutions to solve a problem, initiate tasks, and follow multi-step instructions.

Fortunately, there are ways to compensate deficiencies in executive functioning. The first step in attacking this problem is to simplify. Reduce the number of things the child needs to keep track of until he is more capable of keeping track. For example, an extra set of textbooks for home helps because the student doesn’t need to remember to bring them back and forth.

Rigid structure and routine, technical organizing tools and freedom from distractions can help the child stay focused on the task at hand. Different colored folders make it easier to keep track of things. A planner or electronic organizer can help the student stick to deadlines. Smart phones and other gadgets can be set to offer reminders.

Work with the school staff to ensure she has a routine from the moment she hits the door in the morning and that they coach her throughout the day. Make sure there is a place for everything, and it always stays the same. At home, have a dedicated homework site as well as a set time to work on assignments. Have a specific, labeled shelf for school and library books that travel back and forth, and another labeled shelf for commonly needed materials. Have labeled, color-coded hooks for the school backpack and coat. A list of classmates for each class enables the child to phone someone to clarify assignments when necessary.

Use email to eliminate losing papers. Homework can be submitted at night by email; if the student forgets to bring the paper copy to school, the teacher already has it. All notices, permission slips etc., can also be emailed to the parent, who will email or fax them back as needed. As the child grows, he can take responsibility by emailing or phoning assignments to himself or to his parents, though at first, he may need prompting from an aide or teacher. That way it is still his responsibility to get the assignments home – just a different way of doing it. Allow him to submit completed papers and exercises via email to the teacher. (He is still responsible for completing and submitting the work – but he is using a different system that minimizes his organizational challenges.)

The problem here is not simply that the child forgets; she is unable to organize herself to remember. The Special Education (SPED) team must first help her develop systems and then continue to coach and prompt until she gets on top of it.

A coach or tutor can work with the student to develop strategies for organization, time management and study skills. This is often an aide or other person trained to work with special needs students. The coach can help the child discover which strategies work best for her, and will be invaluable with term papers and major research projects. These are important life skills that these children are unable to pick up on their own; they must be taught and reinforced. That is why a coach is necessary.

One thing the coach can do is review with the student at the end of the day what is supposed to go home, and make sure he has it. The parent should do the same before the child leaves home for school. Often it is necessary to both show and tell. For example: “Here is your lunch money, it is in the left pocket of your pants.” The coach can also supervise a weekly locker cleanout. This is critical to keep the child from getting overwhelmed and losing things.

For large projects, this student will need help breaking complex tasks into their individual parts. Be sure the steps are written down and spelled out, so she can refer to them the next time. If a child needs help beginning a large task, help her think of one thing she could do to begin. Don’t worry whether it should be the first step, middle step, or last step. Hopefully, just doing something will help break the logjam.

Some other organizational tools:

 

  • Checklists
  • Ongoing check-ins to refocus and/or redirect attention as needed
  • Written version of verbal instructions (i.e., list of steps)
  • Make sure everything is labeled with the child’s name. Engraved metal pet tags work well for this.
  • Repeat, rephrase and clarify directions and information to ensure understanding
  • Restate instructions to check for understanding
  • Repetition, reinforcement and re-teaching of skills being taught
  • Information/directions must be broken down into smaller segments
  • Class notes: Assigned note taking buddies for class notes and assignments, or a note taker assigned in each class. Some teachers make enough copies of the note taker’s notes for everyone to pick up from a basket, while others might hand them only to students with LDs (learning disabilities) or to those who were absent.
  • No single student will need all of the accommodations, but you will probably find some that fit your son or daughter. Bring lists of possible accommodations to your child’s IEP Team meeting to discuss with teachers and professionals who are working with the student at school. Most teachers will appreciate suggestions for what you think might work well for your child.

Student Strategies for
Effective Time Management

  • Build routine into your school day. Follow a plan or schedule. This will help you deal with interruptions, avoid distractions, and control the tendency to put things off.
  • Write a daily schedule at the beginning of each day. Create and use “To Do” lists, and prioritize them. Decide what must be done first, what’s urgent, and what can wait.
  • Use your planner not only to record tasks, but also include the details and task instructions. This notebook should be organized with headings, e.g. details of task, additional points to remember, deadlines etc.
  • Schedule a time to work on each task, and write it in your daily planner. Be realistic. Allow more time than is needed for any project. Include time for distractions. A good rule of thumb is to pad the amount of time you think it will take you to complete a task by at least half. If you think a project will take an hour, block an hour and a half.
  • Set realistic deadlines, and then work backwards, creating smaller deadlines. A computer outline can help with this.
  • Be flexible. Remember that the schedule is only a blueprint. At the end of the day, look over what you’ve accomplished. If something isn’t finished, don’t get frustrated; simply move unfinished business to the next day.
  • Use calendars. A monthly vs. a weekly calendar helps some people be more cognizant of the big picture. If things tend to sneak up on you, you may need to see more at one time and then switch to one day at a time mode.
  • Organizing software and electronic organizers are useful for programming repeating events. Things that take place at the same time can be programmed once to repeat at the same day and time each week, reducing the likelihood they will be forgotten.
  • A multi-alarm programmable wristwatch or smartphone is another useful time management tool.
  • Record all project deadlines on the calendar or electronic organizer. Break long-term projects into intermediate deadlines and enter these in the planner or calendar.
  • Break large jobs into smaller chunks. Learn how to “chunk” work into meaningful units and time.
  • Set smaller clearly defined goals that you can achieve in a reasonable amount of time. Don’t try to tackle a large project all at once.
  • Set clocks and watches a few minutes ahead.
  • Don’t procrastinate. Do it now, not later.

Yvona Fast is the author of Employment for Individuals with Asperger Syndrome or Nonverbal Learning Disability and 2 other books. She has spoken about these issues at conferences in the US, Poland and Canada. For more information, check out www.wordsaremyworld.com.

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