Health Magazine

How a Lack of Executive Functioning May Appear in Young Adults

By Gbollard @gbollard

You'll often hear that people with Aspergers syndrome have problems with "executive functioning" but what does it mean and how does it manifest in young adults?  In this post, I hope to give you some answers.


Put simply, executive functions are higher level functions such as planning, reasoning, problem solving, multi-tasking, attention span, inhibition, flexibility, self monitoring, self-initiation and self guidance.  I'm sure I've left out quite a few.
Executive functions are important but in an animal sense, a lack of them is usually not life threatening.  Eating, sleeping, moving and toileting for example, aren't classed as "executive functions".  While executive functioning provides many advantages, it's not so critical in the pure "animal" sense.  It's people and society that has made executive functioning critical in humans.
How a Lack of Executive Functioning Could Manifest in Young Adults
The remainder of this post will focus on an example, in this case; getting ready for school. This may seem like a single task but it is actually an objective made up of many different tasks.
A parent of a child with good executive functioning might expect to be able to say "get yourself ready for school" or even have their child realize that because it's Tuesday, they need to get ready and wear their sports uniform.  This would imply self initiation of tasks.
The getting ready for school task includes sub-tasks such as;
  1. Getting your pajamas off 
  2. Putting your pajamas under the pillow ready for "after school"
  3. Putting underpants on
  4. Deciding whether to wear a sports or normal uniform
  5. Putting pants on
  6. Putting a shirt on
  7. Putting a tie, headband, ribbons etc on 
  8. Putting socks on
  9. Washing Hands
  10. Having Breakfast
  11. Washing hands and face
  12. Brushing Teeth
  13. Putting Lunch in the school bag
  14. Putting Books/Diary in the school bag
  15. Putting Shoes on
  16. Getting outside on time.

A child with poor executive functioning will see these all as entirely separate tasks.  They know that "going to school" is part of the big picture but they won't be able to sequence the tasks and they won't self-start or self-monitor.  If there are any distractions available they will quickly become distracted and will fail to complete the task.
If anything changes, for example, if their favorite breakfast cereal isn't available, then they will not have the flexibility to be able to cope with change. They will not be able to do tasks out of order; for example getting their bags packed before breakfast and the entire "getting ready for school" process will stop. The inflexibility may even trigger a meltdown.
Then there is the matter of lack of inhibition. You might feel that this simply refers to states of undress, and in this example it could.  The lack of Inhibition however refers to a much wider issue.  In particular, it refers to a control mechanism which tells us when "enough is enough" or when certain behavior is unwarranted.  For example, a child lacking in inhibition may not realize when a parent is dangerously overwhelmed and may continue to "push buttons" way past a point of safety.
The Big Picture
This may sound like your child but I'm not necessarily here to offer solutions to the problems of getting ready for school. This post wasn't about that. It was about the lack of executive functioning.  Take any sequence of tasks or anything for which good planning and "common sense" is required and you'll spot the executive functioning issues.
This is what we need to be addressing with children on the spectrum.

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