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Executive Function and Adaptive Skills for Future Success

Academics and good grades are very important, but learning how to be self-sufficient in the real world is just as—if not more—important. There are two things that help to make this possible – adaptive skills and good executive function.

Adaptive behavior is the capacity a person has to personally care for self and to be socially self-sufficient in actual everyday existence. Adaptive skills, learning how to care for one’s self, often referred to as independent daily living skills, is something that most schools assume are taught and learned at home. But children with special needs often need extra help with this.

Some schools are better at addressing these issues than others. If your child is under the special education umbrella, then this is an area that can’t be ignored. Your child’s IEP is where any type of adaptive skill training deemed necessary should be included.

Even though your child may do well academically, and is considered to be high-functioning, there may be a discrepancy between IQ and adaptive skills. This is often the case with high-functioning autism or Aspergers. So make sure adaptive skills are addressed at home and included in your child’s IEP.

Begin with a request for an adaptive skills evaluation and assessment. The results will generate goals to be included in a treatment plan that is developmentally appropriate for your child.

At a minimum, a comprehensive adaptive skills program should focus on the assessment, development, and expansion of the following:

  • Socialization - interpersonal relationships, play and leisure skills.

  • Communication - non-verbal cues, initiating conversation, making requests.

  • Personal care and responsibility - hygiene, toileting, meal prep, chores and other household tasks.

  • Emotional intelligence - self-awareness, empathy, anger management, self-regulation, and coping skills.

  • Safety - personal body awareness and appropriate boundaries. Finding your way in a community, crossing the street, and what to do when lost.

  • Work related skills - interviewing, resume/letter writing, and personal presentation skills.

These areas of focus can be addressed and reinforced at school and at home. Using the same approach for teaching these skills in both environments will help your child master them quickly.

Executive function skills are also extremely important and are essential for any person to succeed in life. These skills consist of organizational capabilities, knowing when and how to set reminders, managing time well, making plans, analyzing ideas, applying what is known to solve problems, etc. All are extremely important to help individuals complete daily chores and responsibilities, as well as succeed in their jobs.

It’s crucial that systems addressing executive function be put into place at home and at school for children on the autism spectrum. Your goal as a parent is to launch your child into adulthood to be as independent as possible. Focusing on improving these skills at home, and advocating that they also be addressed in school, will help make your child’s transition into adulthood easier.

Here are a few things you can do at home to help your child develop or enhance his executive function skills:

Teach organization.

Create a system for organizing assignments, keeping track of notes and papers, and maintaining a productive homework environment for your child. Invest time in teaching your child about the why and the how of being organized —it will pay off big dividends in the long run.

Practice the process.

To make it easier for your child to experience success, break the process of completing a task into doable stages.

First, analyze the situation and how to get the task done.

Second, create a strategy for how it might be handled.

Third, separate the plan into progressive steps on a ladder.

Fourth, assign time estimates to each section.

Fifth, complete the task in the timeframe specified.

Sixth, evaluate and make adjustments as needed.

Customize it to your child.

Be forever mindful of choosing a system that speaks to the way your child takes in and assimilates new information best. Is her learning style visual, auditory, or hands on? How does she communicate most effectively? What other unique things do you need to pay attention to that helps your child learn best?

Teach your child to ask for help.

This is a simple skill that is often assumed everyone has, but does your child really know how to do this? If not, teach your child to ask for help and how? Walk him through it if necessary, and practice as much as you can.

Most of us can multi-task effectively. That means seeing the big picture and planning accordingly. These skills help us complete more than one task at a time and get projects done with a feeling of calm and competence.

All children need to be coached and taught how to develop these skills because none of us are born with them. What we ARE born with are different abilities. Those whose brains that are wired differently need extra practice and their parents need extra patience.

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