Executive Functioning

Executive functioning skills are cognitive processes which help individuals to organise themselves when carrying out various activities.  Many individuals with autism have difficulties in executive functions, including:

  • Planning
  • Problem solving
  • Making choices and decisions
  • Time management
  • Organising information
  • Applying learnt skills

Executive functioning skills are used in all life skill tasks and so any deficit in these skills will have an impact on life skill development.  Some examples are given in the table below:

Executive functioning difficulty Impact on life skill development
Problem solving

Anxiety when an activity does not go to plan e.g. bus is late, shop is closed, telephone is engaged.

Unable to think of solution in response to these problems.

Unable to calmly consider options and select an alternative plan of action.

Making decisions

Cannot make independent decisions e.g. selecting what clothes to wear, choosing a meal in a restaurant, selecting a film in the cinema.

Difficulty in analysing options involved in major life decisions e.g. selecting a post-primary school, making GCSE choices, selecting a post-16 option, making employment choices.


Difficulty in carrying out a task in sequence e.g. making a meal, getting dressed, showering.

Difficulty in collating information to make a plan for an activity e.g. consulting bus timetables and cinema listings to plan a social outing.

Difficulty in prioritising work and meeting deadlines e.g. homework, coursework, workplace deadlines.

Generalising skills

Cannot apply skills learnt in one setting to another setting e.g. transferring skills learnt in the classroom to a real community setting; transferring skills learnt in one shop to another type of shop.

Cannot apply learnt skills if the materials or environment change e.g. preparing a meal in a different kitchen.

Cannot apply core skills learnt in one task to another task e.g. applying the skills of reading a bus timetable to looking up cinema listings.

Time management

Difficulty understanding concept of time and so is frequently late for school or work.

Cannot plan several events in the course of one day.

Difficulty independently planning work to be carried out in a specified timescale e.g. homework assignments in an evening; allocated work during the working day.

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