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Autism and Executive Functioning

Autism and Executive Functioning
Dr. Roseann Capanna-Hodge

Dr. Roseann Capanna-Hodge

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a developmental disorder characterized by difficulties with social skills, repetitive behaviors, limited interests, speech, and nonverbal communication. ASD is on the rise with about 1 in 44 children having autism. 

People with autism display behaviors that occur along a spectrum with some children having cognitive impairments and others having normal or high intelligence along with these specific behaviors, but all children with ASD have a functional impact on their daily life, socialization, and often learning and attention.

Behaviors can be hard to identify so even though many children are diagnosed early in life, it isn't unusual for a diagnosis to occur in the teenage years or even adulthood.

What are Common Co-Occuring Conditions in Autism?

Most children with ASD also have co-occurring conditions, such as gastrointestinal issues, sleep difficulties and disorders, seizures, speech and coordination issues, allergies, ADHD, executive functioning challenges, and OCD, as well as behavioral and mood regulation issues. These common co-occurring issues and conditions have great effects on child and family functioning and management of ASD. 

Sensory Issues and Autism

At the root of autism is a profound difficulty with the nervous system to self-regulate and regulate environmental stimuli. In particular, children with autism experience sensory processing difficulties in which they struggle to modulate sensory input. Light, sound, touch, taste and smell can all be a source of behaviors and environmental support at home and lifestyle changes can go a long way in helping to soothe stress, anxiety, and upset for both child and family. 

Calming the brain is an important first step in emotional and behavioral regulation with kids with ASD because their sensory sensitivity is a common source of behavioral dysregulation and sensory tantrums

Focus, Executive Functioning and ADHD

Difficulties with attention and executive functioning go hand and hand for children with autism. Having done more than 10,000 brain maps, when you look at the brain wave activity of those with ASD, common under stimulation in the frontal lobes and over communication in the brain means that focus and executive functioning is a challenge. 

This type of brain wave pattern is associated with difficulty alerting, which means that listening and starting tasks is a challenge. Transitioning from one activity to another is especially hard for children with ASD because their brains tend to get stuck on preferred high stimulation activities. 

Transitional difficulties are often associated with meltdowns and parent friction but can be improved with routine and structure. 

Executive functioning is different from attention because it involves mental processes required for planning and prioritizing for a future activity or event. It involves way more than going through a checklist and means you need to help your child learn executive functioning skills. 

Common Executive Functioning Issues With Autism

Whether an individual has high functioning autism or moderate levels, difficulties with executive functioning is common. People with ASD can be mislabeled as lazy or disinterested when really they lack the foundational skills of good executive functioning. These difficulties can impact kids with ASD at home and school, and of course in their social interactions. 

Executive Functioning

Common ASD Executive Functioning challenges:

  • Transitioning
  • Task Initiation
  • Sustained attention
  • Emotional Control
  • Stress tolerance
  • Flexibility
  • Organization
  • Planning and prioritizing 
  • Time Management
  • Working Memory
  • Goal Directed Performance
  • Motivation
  • Metacognition

What are the Needs of Children with Autism and Their Families?

The behavioral regulation, sensory processing, learning and attentional, communication, and social needs of children on the spectrum may be challenging for families and providers alike but there are strategies and therapies that provide solutions. 

Comorbid issues and conditions such as obsessive-compulsive behaviors, attention and executive functioning challenges, low stress tolerance, rigidity, repetitive behaviors and verbalizations, and communication and social challenges can be mitigated with home and school environmental supports, therapies and behavioral techniques designed to calm the brain. 

How Can You Help Children With Autism Learn and Improve Attention and Executive Functioning?

Without a calm brain, learning simply isn't possible and for kids with ASD, their nervous system is in a near constant state of fight, flight or freeze, and that is why calming the brain is an essential first step. Tools such as occupational therapy, nutrient changes, biofeedback, PEMF and neurofeedback are safe and effective ways to calm the brain and reduce autistic behaviors. 

Parent psychoeducation  and early intervention designed to address underlying and comorbid issues such as sleep, gastro-internal functioning, low stress tolerance, sensory sensitivity, social engagement and functioning, communication, and learning can be key in creating mental and physical wellness for children and their families with autism. 

At our Ridgefield, Connecticut Neurofeedback and Psychotherapy center, we use neuroscientific methods and take that all important multi-pronged approach to calm the brain and body, as well as address those physical, behavioral, sensory, and social components that all children with autism face. While many families drive or fly to see us at our center, we also work fully remotely with families all over the world. 

How Can We Structure the Environment To Calm The Brain?

When it comes to children with autism, every area of their home environment can be improved to support the physical, behavioral, communication, and mental health needs of the child and family. Children with autism need to feel safe and comfortable and it should be coupled with a lot of predictability in the environment and routines. Giving kids with ASD environmental resources to support their sensory sensitivity and rigid behaviors can go a long way in calming the brain and behavior, which improves learning, attention, and communication.

Having sensory items such as a swing, mini trampoline, sensory blankets and seats, comfortable and soft furniture, play spaces that support sensory needs, reduce tantrums and emotional reactivity, which reduces that family stress that is so hard on everyone. 

Parenting Autism

Having a child with autism can be overwhelming but making changes to your home spaces to reduce behaviors doesn't have to be when you start with small changes. Changing wall color, reducing clutter, and adding in sensory items and spaces is where all parents with ASD should start because they can have the biggest positive impact on behavior. 

How Can I Improve My Child With Autism's Executive Functioning?

Good executive functioning starts with an alert brain and we use neurofeedback to alert the brain. Once the brain is alert and a child or teen is emotionally and behaviorally regulated, then you have the foundation to build good executive functioning skills.

Good executive functioning skills have foundational skills (Response Inhibition, Working Memory, Emotional Control, Flexibility, Sustained Attention, Task Initiation) and advanced skills that take time and concentrated effort to build. Kids with learning, attentional or behavioral issues need a higher level of reinforcement to learn skills at an innate level and all that means is that we need to stay the course and be more vigilant in our reinforcement. 

Children with autism or ADHD and their parents can benefit from explicit executive functioning skills training, which not only gives kids the tools they need but helps to reduce friction at home. Evidence-based tools such as explicit executive functioning skills training is a great place to start. 

In our BrainBehaviorReset™ Program, we guide parents of children with ASD in calming the brain and improving their child's behavior and family stress. We understand the unique needs of children with ASD and their families not because Dr. Roseann has had the privilege of supporting these families for more than 30 years, but because we have staff who love someone with autism at home. 

To learn more about how to improve your child's or teen's executive functioning, register for Dr. Roseann's free webinar on executive functioning


CDC (2022). Data & Statistics on Autism Spectrum Disorder

CDC (2022).Diagnostic criteria for autism.

Hyman, S. L., Levy, S. E., Myers, S. M., & COUNCIL ON CHILDREN WITH DISABILITIES, SECTION ON DEVELOPMENTAL AND BEHAVIORAL PEDIATRICS (2020). Identification, Evaluation, and Management of Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder. Pediatrics, 145(1), e20193447.

Always remember… “Calm Brain, Happy Family™”

Disclaimer: This article is not intended to give health advice and it is recommended to consult with a physician before beginning any new wellness regime. 

Are you looking for SOLUTIONS for your struggling child or teen? 

Dr. Roseann and her team are all about solutions, so you are in the right place! 

There are 3 ways to work with Dr. Roseann: 

You can get her books for parents and professionals, including: It's Gonna Be OK™: Proven Ways to Improve Your Child's Mental Health, Teletherapy Toolkit™ and Brain Under Attack: A Resource For Parents and Caregivers of Children With PANS, PANDAS, and Autoimmune Encephalopathy.

If you are a business or organization that needs proactive guidance to support employee mental health or an organization looking for a brand representative, check out Dr. Roseann's professional speaking page to see how we can work together. 

Dr. Roseann is a Children's Mental Health Expert and Therapist who has been featured in/on hundreds of  media outlets including, CBS, NBC, FOX News, PIX11 NYC, The New York Times, The Washington Post,, Business Insider, USA Today, CNET, Marth Stewart, and PARENTS. FORBES called her, “A thought leader in children's mental health.” 

She is the founder and director of The Global Institute of Children's Mental Health and Dr. Roseann Capanna-Hodge. Dr. Roseann is a Board Certified Neurofeedback (BCN) Practitioner, a Board Member of the Northeast Region Biofeedback Society (NRBS), Certified Integrative Medicine Mental Health Provider (CMHIMP) and an Amen Clinic Certified Brain Health Coach.  She is also a member of The International Lyme Disease and Associated Disease Society (ILADS), The American Psychological Association (APA), Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) National Association of School Psychologists (NASP), International OCD Foundation (IOCDF) International Society for Neurofeedback and Research (ISNR) and The Association of Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback (AAPB).

© Roseann-Capanna-Hodge, LLC 2022

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