As parents and caregivers to children on the spectrum, you may find yourself wondering every now and again, why they did what they did and question the link between impulse control disorder and autism. Impulsive behaviors can go hand in hand in childhood and is a way that children test their environment and learn different skills like self control, along with actions and repercussions.
As human beings we have natural, knee jerk reactions that are a part of our fight or flight response, like moving away from an object coming towards us, that are meant to keep us alive in our environment. There are also functions that occur without us thinking about them and willing them to happen, like our heart beating.
As we mature and develop more abstract concepts, like executive function and other actions that require the use of the prefrontal cortex in our brain, start growing and maturing. Executive functioning is required when it is necessary to plan, create, focus, implement, recollect, manage tasks and goals, as well as name and have an ability to control our impulses.
Autistic children that have behavioral problems, like impulsive behavior, can receive the support and learn new problem solving skills and how to have better understanding of self control.
Is there a relationship between impulse control issues and autism spectrum disorder (ASD)?
According to the article, 7 Executive Functioning Challenges for People with Autism, there are seven challenges that autistic people have with executive functioning:
- Difficulties with communication
These difficulties could range anywhere from the lack of understanding a conversation to saying and doing things that others find improper or downright offensive
- Organization problems
Having and setting goals, as well as planning for the execution of the goals can be difficult and overwhelming for autistic children
- Execution of regular schedule
Remembering and following through with daily tasks like self care and following a schedule without prompting or reminders can be difficult because of difficulties with working memory for people with autism
- Impulse control issues
Examples could be having a hard time with impulse control, like self control and other behaviors that can be harmful to the individual
- Easily distracted
There are people with autism that have a hard time staying focused on their task, while there are other individuals that have a diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), that can add to the inability to focus and complete a task they have been given
- Struggling with verbal cues
Autistic children may have a hard time grasping and understanding when someone gives them verbal directions or following verbal cues in an appropriate manner
- Trouble with adapting and flexibility
Looking at things from a different perspective can be difficult because of the rigid thinking that some people with autism can have can make it challenging when there’s a sudden change to their schedule or other aspects of their life
These are just a few of the challenges that people with autism can face when it comes to executive functioning. These skills can make daily tasks difficult and, depending on the individual, make the autistic person experience more stress because of the struggle with these tasks.
Although the stress and struggle are very real, there are strategies that people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can use. These strategies and coping mechanisms can help break down the larger challenge the individual is facing into a manageable size task to start with.
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Examples of executive function coping mechanisms and strategies
There are different ways that autistic people can break their day down into smaller, more manageable sections. There are resources and support available that could include ideas like:
- Creating a to-do list
- Visual schedules
- Breaking tasks down into steps and posting them
- Token boards
- Visual activity boards
- Social stories
Although these are just a few examples of the many ideas there are available, the important thing to remember is that having these resources within reach and smaller steps along with routines in place is a great starting point. Being able to recognize this need and provide support can make a world of difference for people diagnosed with autism and help improve their executive function skills.
What is executive dysfunction?
In the article, Executive Dysfunction in Children with Autism, it states,
“Executive dysfunction describes a variety of cognitive, behavioral, and emotional difficulties that are either caused by neurodevelopmental disorders or as a result of a traumatic frontal lobe injury. Challenges due to executive dysfunction include difficulty planning, organizing, problem-solving, and time management.”
Since these examples are the opposite of what encompasses executive function, it can prove difficult to accomplish tasks without the above stated mechanisms and support the autistic child may need. It is recommended to talk to your child’s doctor if you have any questions in regards to executive dysfunction and helpful information in regards to coping mechanisms that can help alleviate some of the stress.
Ways to help the autistic child cope with executive dysfunction
Having the ability to adapt and function in a way that helps autistic children strengthen their social skills and executive functioning can help improve overall quality of life. Although some of these skills can already be known and used by the individual, new ones can be taught, helping curb any executive dysfunction behaviors that could be problematic.
Children learn best when their interests and strengths are being utilized. There are different resources and therapies that your child’s doctor has access to or can refer your child to a specialist that can utilize a functional behavior assessment or other and use those strengths and interests while building on their skills.
Some of the skills they may work on to improve executive function could be:
Building up working memory
this could be done through different types of memory games and discussing different parts of your child’s day, having them recall different parts
How to start a task, conversation, etc.
this could be done through providing opportunities to pick and start an activity, through different board games, and providing social opportunities where the child can start conversations with peers and other children
Impulse control activities
these could be done through many different types of board games and activities, like helping make something for lunch or any activity that would require patience, improve self-regulation, and curb the need for instant gratification
Learning to adapt and be flexible
an example would that the therapist would change the child’s schedule or other aspects that they are expecting and provide different materials for tasks that the child is not used to seeing or interacting with
Plan and organize
providing the opportunity for the child to keep a visual schedule or some sort of schedule as they help to make plans for school, lunch, or any other part of their day
as a child learns different terms that are associated with emotions, health, and other aspects of themselves to where they can start knowing and understanding what they are feeling, why, and what they can do about it
There are many ways to answer the question of why your child just dropped in the mud before you left playgroup and needed to stop at the grocery store. Or why they have misplaced the weekly letter their teacher sends home about that week’s progress.
It can happen to anyone and everyone. It is important to note when autistic children have impulse control problems, exhibit violent behavior towards themselves and others, hyper-focus on one task while lacking attention to the task at hand, there are treatment options that their doctor can provide or refer them to a specialist.
Treatment may not be an option or look the way that you expect. There are numerous ways that specialists can use the child’s interests and strengths to create a more child-led session and make it fun for them while strengthening their skills.
Deolinda, A. (2021). Executive Dysfunction in Children with Autism. https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/executive-dysfunction-autism/
Jack, C. (2021). 7 Executive Functioning Challenges for People With Autism: Executive functioning issues are common and problematic for autistic people.