• Understanding Autism from the Inside

    “Academics came easily to me. The rest of life—not so much.”

Why Is It Difficult for Those with Autism to Complete Tasks or Meet Goals?

goalsIt is often difficult to for those with autism spectrum disorders to work towards goals. This difficulty can be explained by the inability to sustain problem solving capabilities—part of the job of our executive functioning system. In those with autism this system can be inhibited. Executive Dysfunction or a deficit in executive functioning is a one of the core deficits of Autism Spectrum Disorders, or Asperger’s Syndrome.

What is Executive Function?

Executive Function is an important self-regulatory system that when in deficit, makes it difficult to take steps towards a goal while incorporating information and making adjustments along the way. Executive Functioning is what gives us the capability for self-control which allows us to sustain problem solving directed towards a goal—the brain function responsible for goal-directed problem solving, and goal-directed persistence.

Executive Dysfunction Makes Reaching Goals Difficult

Those living with executive dysfunction often have difficulty reaching goals. Goal reaching issues can best be understood when likened to sensory processing issues, which may be related both functions being performed in the frontal cortex of the brain. For example, with auditory processing issues, the auditory system seems to be unable to filter out background noise, or hone in on a particular sound when required. There is no filter; everything is comes at you at the same time, fawning for your attention—now. There is no hierarchy of importance in these sounds, meaning the sound of a voice speaking to you is of the same importance to your auditory system as the sounds of the traffic in the background, and, therefore, seemingly as loud and distracting. A person’s voice blends into the backgrounds sounds, often becoming disorienting, and making all the sounds and words blend together. This is particularly problematic if stressed, distracted, or overloaded in any way.Making progress towards goals is very similar to this experience when you live with executive dysfunction. All the steps required to make progress towards a specific goal gets jumbled together.The autistic person will often have trouble deciding what to do next (sequencing) in order to move themselves closer to the goal because all the tasks needed to be completed, are of equal importance (prioritizing), and need their attention—now (no filter). This inability to sequence and prioritize effectively often results in not being able to complete a project/goal.

Is There a Way to Overcome or Compensate for Executive Dysfunction?

Working in a quiet environment where you are less likely to be interrupted can help with maintaining focus on sequencing and working towards goals and projects. Keeping detailed lists, and prioritizing those lists ahead of time will help give your task direction and allow you to not have to rely on working short-term memory to keep track of the next task in the sequence. With proper planning, assistance, and minimal distractions many of the executive functioning issues that a person with autism experiences can be overcome.

It is important to remember that autistic individuals are detail oriented and sometimes lose sight of the whole picture, project, or goal—something known as weak central coherence. This coupled with executive functioning difficulties can make working towards goals and projects, or “keeping their eye on the ball” difficult. In some cases, medication to help with executive functioning can help, as well as, other coping strategies such as making and prioritizing lists ahead of time, minimalizing distractions, and asking for assistance when needed.

Jeannie Davide-Rivera

Jeannie is an award-winning author, the Answers.com Autism Category Expert , contributes to Autism Parenting Magazine, and the Thinking Person's Guide to Autism. She lives in New York with her husband and four sons, three of which are on the autism spectrum.
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