Autism executive function

Getting things done


Disorganized, lazy, procrastinator, negligent, sloppy, messy, always late,
late bills, late for appointments, late for work, cluttered, dirty, overwhelmed!

This is the life of many autistic adults. Although we love details, many of us need help with every day life due to struggles with executive function. Executive function is the part of us which is used to organize, start a project and follow it to completion, to do basic household chores in a regular and frequent manner, to follow up on paperwork , balancing a check book, paying bills, keeping files so that we can find important records when we need them ( or in case we need them). Executive function is getting work done in an orderly way and keeping up with due dates, project deadlines, keeping within guidelines or following directions.

There are many things that can contribute to our struggles with executive function. Like everything in a spectrum, there are some very vague areas of functioning from deep struggles with everything or not needing much help if any. Struggles with executive function are not diagnostic of autism, but many of us (autistic folk) need help sorting it out one one level or another.

Proprioceptive difficulties can add to our burdens… how do we know and recognize when to do any specific job? How far should I go with cleaning? Quick wipe down? Deep clean? How often?

The ability to even begin a project can be held back by several different issues. We could have Demand avoidance, performance anxiety, learned helplessness, troubles with memory either or, or both short or long term. There may be need to see an occupational therapist to help devise strategies that are useful to assist functioning levels. Psychologists or other therapists may be able to help with the anxiety, helplessness, and avoidant behaviors.

Some of us are great at finding details, but not at sorting them or ranking them in a way that can be useful. We might need help deciding which details are important and which are of less importance, and ranking them as priorities.


Struggles vary and each of us will need help with different things.
I might know I should do the dishes and clean the bathroom, vacuum, do laundry, change the sheets, etc. but how do I know when to do these things, and have I learned how? I needed to learn each of these tasks individually and was fortunate to have been taught much of it as a child. I had to get books on household administration and read them, advice on auto care, information on lawn care, household maintainence and how frequently to have things like the furnace serviced, etc. There are lots of informational resources on line! We can ask others to teach us or help us sort out the details of almost anything. We do not have to struggle along and make do, there are usually resources available.

With autism, we can break each individual job down to its smallest components.
Naming Tools needed for each job, and supplies needed. ( how do we choose them?) Then we learn how to go about doing each task. How to use the washing machine( what kinds of things go in the wash water, cleaners, brighteners, scent, softeners?) and hang clothing to dry, our use the dryer ( do I use dryer sheets?) How do we treat stubborn stains and spots? How do we fold the clothing and do we have a single certain place to put it every time ? It is more complicated than it may seem. If we missed those lessons as children, we need to find a way to learn them today. The same for every single thing we do to take care of ourselves and our possessions, and our households.



A project such as “housecleaning” can overwhelm us until we learn to break it down into small steps.. instead of “cleaning the kitchen” as a job, we can break it down to small tasks. Collect all the trash and take the garbage out. Wash the dishes. Put away food/spices and utensils. Do we have one specific place where each item belongs? clean the counters and cabinets, wash the floor. We learn individual things like cleaning the oven and cleaning the fridge as separate tasks and make sure they go on our list of things we don’t need to do daily, but less frequently. we can use lists, schedules, electronic devices, calendars, reminders in the form of post it notes or a cell phone that might call you back and remind you.

The same goes for individual paperwork tasks… do we know where we keep supplies, what supplies do we need? Where will we work (desk, kitchen table, ???) Do we have adequate light? What dates do we need to be aware of? Bills and other deadlines can not be ignored, but must be planned for and this is something that we can learn. Many management techniques are available, from credit, debit, electronic banking, using an accountant, etc. If you don’t feel you can do it yourself, please ask for help. We can get easily overwhelmed or frustrated, and letting these things go can cause such major problems.


If you are not able to sort executive function issues on your own, there is no shame in reaching out to get help from others or to rely on paying others to make sure some of this stuff gets done. I must point out that I do not know what resources are available in other countries, I am speaking from the perspcective of a person living in the USA in a small and relatively poor and rural community.

I suspect some places have nothing at all to help. In this case, talking to others and asking how they handle specific issues may get some guidance or insight.

Who do we go to for help? Talking to a friend, family member, therapist, social service agency, your doctor or minister, and explaining your struggles can get suggestions, help you find ideas the might work for you, and get referral to others who can help if they can not. Many areas have senior citizens agencies set up to help seniors with daily living struggles, senior centers usually have information services. government agencies, on city, county, state levels may have programs to help seniors with issues of daily living, including cleaning, keeping appointments, food plans/ meals or food programs, etc. If you need help, there is no shame in asking for it.

3 thoughts on “Autism executive function

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