Teaching Executive Functioning Skills to Students with Autism

Instructor: Lori Sturdivant

Lori has a specialist's degree in Instructional Leadership/Mild Moderate and currently serves as the Lead Teacher for The University of Southern Mississippi's Autism Project.

This lesson describes what executive functioning skills are and why students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have trouble with them. Also included are strategies and examples for teaching these skills to students with ASD.

What are Executive Functioning Skills?

If you have students who have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), you may notice that some of them experience problems with their executive functioning. This lesson will help you understand the correlation between ASD and executive functioning.

First, let's define executive functioning. Executive functioning refers to the skills that deal with mental control and self-regulation. They are the skills that give us the ability to plan, organize, remember details, adapt to different settings, control our emotions and actions and complete large or multi-step activities.

Examples of executive functioning skills include:

  • Impulse control: Ability to think before you act
  • Emotional control: Ability to regulate your feelings and recognize the feelings of others
  • Flexibility: Ability to regulate response to change or the unexpected
  • Working memory: Ability to retrieve information (this is the short-term memory)
  • Planning and self-monitoring: Ability to regulate and monitor oneself towards progress of predetermined goals and objectives
  • Task initiation: Ability to start a new task; motivation to begin working on something
  • Organization: Ability to keep up with times, events, tasks, etc.

Executive Functioning Skills and ASD

Students with autism spectrum disorder may struggle to clue in to social cues and body language. It can be very difficult for them to understand their emotions and relate to others. ASD can also interfere with the ability to process information and adapt to different settings and routines. These are skills that fall into the executive functioning category.

Let's now discuss strategies what can help students to improve their executive functioning skills!

Teaching Strategies and Activities


Songs are especially great for your auditory learners! They help students learn how to multi-task, as well as helping students with listening and moving.

Use songs that provide explicit instructions on how to move. For younger students you could use songs such as ''Hokey Pokey'' and ''Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes.'' For older students, you could use songs such as ''Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae)'' or ''Electric Slide.''

Use songs that are age appropriate and culturally relevant to increase engagement and willingness to participate.

Sorting and Matching

Sorting and matching games are quiet, which means they're great for ASD students who are sensitive to sound, and they can be done without direct instruction by the teacher. These games help teach students critical thinking skills.

For instance, you could have younger students sort items into different piles or bins by color, shape, size, or even purpose. Scissors and glue go together, for example, because they are used at the craft table.

Older students could sort items such as:

  • Foods in the different food groups
  • Occupations into different categories (public service, corporate etc.)
  • Clothing items by season
  • Books by genre

Feelings Chart

A feelings chart uses pictures of faces to show different emotions. Our students with ASD typically have difficulty recognizing emotions, and this makes it difficult for them to adapt to other people's emotions. Use simple cartoon faces for younger students, and start with just three or four basic emotions, such as happy, sad, mad and scared. For older students you could use pictures from magazines.

You could also create a personalized feelings chart by using pictures of the actual students, their family members, or school staff making the faces that show different emotions.


Calendar-related activities can be useful for students with ASD. Four younger students, have them identify what yesterday was, what today is and what tomorrow will be. This teaches short-term memory recollection.

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