During our recent webinar “Elevating executive function: Skills for life and learning” we had an overwhelming number of questions about how to support executive function in middle and high school students. We’ve pulled together some of our top executive function experts to answer this question. Dr. Sheila Murphy and Jennifer Onoyeyan offered up some great ideas for improving executive function in middle and high school students so bookmark this page! You’re going to want to come back to it.
Q & A: Improving executive function in middle and high school students
How can middle and high schoolers improve task management?
To improve a skill like task management, figure out specifically where the student is getting stuck. Is it in starting? Making a plan? Taking action? Monitoring or self reflection? Once you figure out where the problem lies it is easier to figure out where to support them.
One option to help with managing tasks is using the Let’s Begin Board. We’ve included an example below along with instructions on how to use it for different ages.
What are some options for my kids to try on their own?
Enrolling in classes like speech and debate are great options to improve several different areas of executive function in middle and high school students. Your kids won’t even realize they are exercising their EF skills!
Access to timers, especially timers that visually show the passage of time can also help kids work on their own. Timers eliminate the “how much longer?” question and can lead to better focus and understanding of how long tasks actually take to complete.
How can I help while also encouraging independence?
Giving older kids in high school more autonomy– space to think and come up with their own solution– would help best. Parents can then guide them to the smallest unit point possible.
For example: Your student says “I just need to study more.” Parents can guide with questions like “How are you going to study and what does ‘study more’ mean? Let’s give it a number or quantify it.” This way “I just need to study more.” turns into —-> “I will add one hour of reading my science notes to every Thursday.”
What are some non-school activities that help executive function in middle and high school students?
Playing chess is amazing for activating all executive functioning skills. Any type of strategy game can be helpful. Drama clubs, theater programs and improvisation classes are great after school activities for improving executive function.
Can my high schooler make improvements even if they have been masking for years?
You definitely can help high school students with this. It’s never too late! Starting with metacognition (here is an excellent video explaining what metacognition is) and self-awareness is a great way to dig under the “mask” that these teens often put up.
To view the full webinar from which these questions arose, watch here:
In honor of Black History Month, the Learnfully team pulled together a list of our favorite black influencers who are neurodiverse or produce content for the neurodivergent community. These black influencers consistently create content that enlightens, informs and educates everyone who scrolls through their feeds. They make social media a better place to be and remind our learners that they’ve got this.
We couldn’t be more grateful for their presence and can’t wait for you to check out what they have to offer.
Above all else, Black Neurodiversity is an amazing resource. We have found so much great information through this account that they had to be at the top of our list. Check out their current posts for Black Futures Month– so many great neurodiverse leaders to be found! We also love their insightful posts such as this one:
File Autistic Black Woman under “Should Have More Followers Because She Shares Such Great Info.” We love this self-proclaimed “Neurodivergent Queen” for so many reasons. She wears her heart on her sleeve and shares such insightful information on what it’s like to be a black female autistic. Follow her for amazing posts like this one:
Dr. Dawn is a powerful, positive voice in the social media world. Her work with athletes, ADD, PTSD and mental health keeps us informed and empowered to help others. We found Dr. Dawn through her recent post on a mother’s thoughts on ADHD and now we can’t get enough!
Tumi of The Black Dyspraxic defines himself as a researcher, academic, public speaker, consultant and advocate. He does an amazing job of being all these things and more through his social media work. Neurodiversity, with a concentration on dyspraxia, is the focus of many of his posts as he informs and educates us all in knowledge-packed posts like this one:
If you’re looking for an influencer who is guaranteed to make you think, check out Ryse of Teaching with Mxt. They describe themselves as a history teacher who is a parent, non-binary, queer with ADHD and autism. So many perspectives to share AND their book lists and book reviews are not to be missed.
There is so much to say about Caro of Disrupt Yuh Feed. Her illustrations are amazing, her posts are insightful, she contributes SO much to the neurodivergent world of social media. Follow Caro for creativity and perfect posts like this one:
Jordan, aka JRC the SLP, has a social media channel packed with resources about speech and language, mental health and anti-racism. She creates great content and is super engaging on video. Absolutely worth a follow!
If you like a side of reality with your neurodivergent parenting, follow Jessie of Momma_lips. She keeps in real while providing a ton of video content of what it is really like to be an autism mom. Our favorite phrase from her posts is “I’m already tired tomorrow.”
Jessie creates primarily video content so we couldn’t share our favorite Instagram post but here’s one from Tik Tok:
We can’t emphasize the importance of Justice 4 Matthew Rushin enough. Matthew Rushin was incarcerated after his autistic traits were seen as aggression towards law enforcement. What Matthew has gone through is the worst fear of every black mother and every autism mom. After a long battle, that is not yet over, Matthew was freed but their social media campaign for change has not ended. Join Matthew and his family as they fight for change for all.
For all of the insight you ever needed on your autistic child follow Autistic Black Girl. Aside from her amazing illustrative skills, this Instagrammer is excellent at articulating what she felt when she was young and how she experiences things now as an adult. So enlightening, so talented and absolutely worth a follow.
Do you have a favorite black influencer in the neurodivergent space? Let us know in the comments who we should be following!
“Alex is smart and extremely capable but has a very hard time paying attention and following instructions. He would really benefit from Executive Functioning therapy!”
As parents you may have heard the term executive functioning used by your child’s educational team. If you have a child that has any type of learning difference, or one who struggles to learn in a classroom, there is a good chance you’ve heard it. New terms like this can be overwhelming and anxiety-inducing, especially if the exact problem and solution are loosely defined.
If you’ve heard about executive functioning but don’t exactly know what it means, you are not alone. Searching the internet can create more questions than answers! I’ve spent years demystifying this from a parent’s lens and here are some things I wish I had known from the beginning:
Executive functioning has nothing to do with IQ. It involves the frontal lobe of your brain which helps you access your cognitive abilities. Your smart kid, who is performing below their potential is struggling to learn because the classroom has a one-size fits all teaching style which is not suitable for learners who learn differently.
Executive functioning helps you do things like:
remember what you need when you need it
organize yourself and your surroundings
decide how much time you need to complete a task
complete something once you start it and SO much more.
Executive function plays a HUGE role in the foundation of learning. Your stubborn kid is not avoiding the work “just because.” They don’t understand why their peers are better at certain things and they most likely feel inadequate as they do not understand their strengths and challenges enough to advocate for themselves.
Executive functioning can’t be worked on in isolation. It’s like saying “I’m training to be an athlete” but not in a particular sport when you are not innately athletic. If executive functioning interferes with the child’s ability to read and write, look into multi-sensory education therapy to help them make progress.
Executive functioning challenges come in the form of behaviors. Behaviors such as stubbornness, avoiding classwork, regularly being late, forgetfulness, etc. are signs of executive function challenges. Waiting for them to “outgrow it” will only enable them to learn more of the behaviors which become hard to undo.
Good EF skills in a child can look like:
remembering whether they need to bring a pen or pencil, notebook or laptop to a class
starting a project with enough time to finish it
organizing their toys/belongings in a way that makes life easier for them
easily switching from one class to the next.
Good executive functioning skills in an adult can look like:
knowing where car keys, wallet and phone are each day.
correctly estimating whether or not they have enough time to make breakfast before having to leave for work
switching from “work mode” to “home mode” with ease
easily coming up with a new plan when arriving at a restaurant that is closed.
Progress in executive function is not linear. Someone may improve their skills in an area but as they grow, their expectations grow as well. The increase in expectations causes the need to work on executive functioning in that area again. For example, elementary school parents may help pack the backpack each day. By middle school, the child may do this independently. The need to know what is required for school each day presents a new executive functioning challenge.
Executive functioning skills develop until you are 25! If you’re getting frustrated with your child’s lack of progress, think of it as building muscle, you don’t always see results right away.
Last but not least, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. It’s not uncommon for parents to struggle to help their kids as they may struggle with similar issues themselves. Or for a parent to see these struggles as normal because “they went through the same thing.” While we’ve learned to cope it’s unfair to expect our kids to have the same journey and expect the same results.
The term executive functioning may sound technical in nature but once you begin to understand what it looks like in the daily life of you and your learner it becomes much less daunting.
What you can do next
Very few people are executive functioning pros. We all have areas we could improve and areas where we excel. Kids who have executive functioning challenges also have strengths. Take some time to analyze your own behaviors and pick out your own strengths and challenges.
Sign up for upcoming executive functioning webinars here.
Executive function is like the control panel of the brain. Our ability to prepare, plan for and execute day-to-day tasks is dependent on our executive functioning skills. A student with poor executive functioning skills can have difficulty with everything from beginning a task to understanding how much time they will need to complete it. With all of this in mind, the toll executive function difficulties take on reading and writing skills cannot be overlooked.
A learner’s executive function supervises the frontal lobe of the brain. They are able to tell where, when and how to do a task and what skill is needed. Overall awareness of what needs to be done and how it needs to be done are essential skills for all successful learners and are also often deficits in children with learning differences.
Key signs of executive function difficulty in learning are:
The ability to do something if told but not without prompting or in conjunction with other activities.
Getting easily frustrated or tired by mental tasks.
Writing that lacks focus and structure
Great ideas with little to no follow through
Crying easily or getting angry following a school day
Does something wrong only to immediately feel guilty after
Doesn’t know how to break tasks down or how to start
Executive functioning in reading and writing
Reading and writing involve an enormous amount of planning, preparing and executing. With even a surface-level understanding of executive functioning, one can see how a delay could cause significant problems with both reading and writing skills. Finding the right assistance for these at-risk learners is so important.
In reading, learners use executive functioning skills over time to:
Sound out words
Decipher words with multiple meanings
Actively use working memory
Maintain focus on text
In writing learners use executive function to:
Write letters in sequence
Plan for what is next
Stay on topic
Consider other points of view
Warning signs of executive dysfunction in reading and writing
As with all learning differences, early detection is the key to increasing a learners success over time. There are many different factors that play into reading and writing difficulties and some can be easily recognized as relating to challenges with executive function.
Some red flags are learners who:
are able to read but their comprehension of what they are reading is not in line with the level at which they are reading
can do a task if told but are unable to initiate the task independently
lack structure and focus when completing an assignment
have great ideas but rarely follow through
don’t know how to break tasks down or how to start
cry or get angry following school
get easily frustrated or tired with mental tasks.
What to do if you recognize these signs
First, don’t panic. There are many, many children and adults with executive functioning difficulties. You may even notice some of these signs in yourself or another adult you know. Does anyone in your life have trouble budgeting their time? Do you put off and put off a task rather than just jumping in and completing it? Do you know someone who is the first to come up with an idea but will almost certainly not follow through with it? All of these are signs of executive dysfunction in adults. They are not characteristics to worry about but rather traits to recognize and work on.
Second, Learnfully is here to help. Our educational specialists are specifically trained to recognize and work through executive functioning challenges as they come up in school work and home life. Learnfully has workshops, events and virtual tutoring options for learners at every level and is here to guide you through the process.
There is a lot of confusion around executive function (EF)—and how it relates to Attention Deficit (Hyperactivity) Disorder (ADHD). Is ADHD an executive function disorder? Is every EF disorder also ADHD? What even are EF and ADHD? The answers depend on what we mean by “executive function” and how it presents in a learner’s life. Let’s examine the key relationships and differences between ADHD and executive dysfunction.
Does EF Always Overlap with ADHD?
The term “executive functioning” was coined in the 1970s by Karl Pribram, whose research indicated that executive functioning is managed by the prefrontal cortex. This is the part of our brain that controls planning of complex cognitive behavior, personality expression, decision making, and social behavior. Those who struggle with executive functions on a clinical level aren’t diagnosed with an executive dysfunction disorder—you won’t find executive function in the DSM-5. But a clinician can still detect EF weaknesses—especially those that create excessive, persistent, and severe symptoms that lead to harm or impairment.
Many people without an ADHD diagnosis struggle with their executive functioning, though not all who struggle with executive functioning qualify for an ADHD diagnosis. While executive dysfunction is often a symptom of ADHD, the opposite is not always the case.
Key Ways EF and ADHD are Related
There are so many connections between ADHD and executive dysfunction. Learners who struggle with both may have difficulty:
holding information in working memory
switching easily from one activity to another
getting started on tasks
organizing time and materials
keeping track of what’s going on
completing long-term projects
thinking before acting
remembering assigned tasks.
One Key Difference Between ADHD & EF
ADHD can receive an official diagnosis while an executive function challenge cannot. However, trouble with executive function is not limited to symptoms in ADHD learners. EF refers to weaknesses in the brain’s self-management system. People can have trouble with executive function for many reasons—not just ADHD. In fact, the majority of kids with learning differences struggle with one or more of the eleven executive function skills. This means EF challenges are actually much more widespread than ADHD, even though we’re just starting to understand how prevalent these challenges really are.
Taking Action to Support Our Learners
Now that we have uncovered how the two conditions connect with one another, it is important for all of us to have access to evidence-based strategies to treat learners with executive functioning and ADHD difficulties. Awareness of ADHD and EF can help caregivers advocate for proper accommodations and treatment. Learners with ADHD or executive dysfunction can learn to use their interests, strengths and knowledge to improve their skills and advocate for their own learning needs.
If you think someone you know may have challenges relating to ADHD or executive function, contact us and we’ll be happy to offer guidance. You can also call or text Learnfully at 650-459-5900
My daughter received many diagnoses before the official diagnosis of autism. She was born before the rise in autism cases we’ve seen over the past decade or so. Being a girl, autism was rarely at the top of a physician’s list of considerations but dyspraxia was.
What is dyspraxia and how does it relate to autism?
Doctors thought she might have a hearing impairment, a speech disorder, poor vision, hypotonia, the list goes on and on. But the one diagnosis that stuck-–the one that made the most sense besides autism—was dyspraxia.
Dyspraxia, sometimes referred to as developmental coordination disorder, affects fine and gross motor skills. Individuals with dyspraxia often have difficulty controlling their movements with precision. Gross motor activities like jumping are often difficult as are small motor tasks like writing or using scissors.
According to a study published in Molecular Autism, Dyspraxia is more prevalent in people with autism. As autism is frequently associated with motor coordination difficulties, the link to dyspraxia may be the culprit.
From birth my daughter was what I can only describe as a “floppy” child. Poor control of her arms and legs caused delays in all of her major milestones. Difficulty with fine motor skills made her unable to feed herself finger foods or fasten her own clothing. Her speech was also affected; she spoke loosely, words and sounds rolled out of her mouth. The small muscles needed to form precise sounds and chew food carefully didn’t seem to be working together the way they should.
How dyspraxia helped my daughter qualify for early intervention
As I waited for an autism diagnosis I knew would eventually come, her dyspraxia diagnosis was the one diagnosis that made the most sense. Dyspraxia was my jumping off point. I took this label, did my research and used it to qualify my daughter for occupational, physical, and speech therapy. Because her dyspraxic tendencies were apparent by the time she was 18 months old, my daughter qualified for insurance coverage and my 18 month old was soon in therapy three days a week.
To this day I believe the early, targeted therapy made a huge difference in my daughter’s long-term growth. She was born at a time when the importance of early intervention was not yet understood. If we had waited for someone to finally agree she had autism, even though she wasn’t a boy and had no Rainman-like characteristics, she would have never received the early therapies she desperately needed.
Researching and understanding dyspraxia, what it meant for my daughter’s movement and speech delays, what types of therapy were most effective and how we could help her at home, gave me a path forward in those early days of fumbling around for answers. A dyspraxia diagnosis comes with many challenges but for us, it was one more piece of the puzzle that began our autism journey.
What to do if you think your child may have dyspraxia
Talk to your pediatrician and ask for an evaluation for occupational therapy.
Contact your school district, let them know about your concerns and ask that they evaluate your child for services.
Contact Learnfully for specific educational methods proven to work with dyspraxic learners.
About the Author
Jessica Watsonis a mom to several kids with learning differences, including one with autism. As a homeschooling parent, a published author in this space and a marketing specialist, she has found a great balance between her personal life and her work with the neurodivergent community.
Just like there are with physical illnesses, many different types of therapy exist to support a child with a learning or other neural difference. A mental health consultation and therapy can be an essential guide to help you navigate your child’s holistic needs. Although there is no single universal treatment that works for all, there are many different approaches that can help your child and family make progress and cope with emotions, thoughts, and behaviors.
Treatment approaches vary from therapy, exercise, social support, education, and medication. Outlined below is a brief description of the available research-based interventions often used to meet the needs and preferences of the child receiving them:
What is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)?
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a talk-based therapy that focuses on thoughts and emotions that impact mood and behaviors, as well as integrating tangible ways for children to empower themselves. During CBT, the therapist will guide the child to learn how to replace negative thought patterns with positive and productive ones. This is often done through role-playing, journaling, and talking about alternative strategies to handle difficult situations. Cognitive behavioral therapy will help your child discover new perspectives and tools on how to approach challenges and learn coping techniques cognitively. In addition to acquiring new coping skills, CBT allows your child to improve their self-image and gain problem-solving skills.
This type of therapy can range from play, such as arts and crafts, meditation, to talking through stressful situations to reframe thoughts from negative to positive. For example, a student may think a challenging math problem is a reflection of their academic ability and that their potential is predetermined. Therapists can reframe their thinking, so challenges are seen as beneficial and opportunities to grow.
What is Parent-child Interaction Therapy (PCIT)?
Parent-child interaction therapy (PCIT) is a short-term treatment designed to help families acquire specific skills to strengthen their relationship with their child. A goal is to build the parent’s ability to build confidence in directing the child’s behavior and re-establish positive feelings into interactions. A typical PCIT session has the parent(s) and children together participating in play, such as engaging with action figures or creative visualization. A therapist observes through a two-way mirror and guides the parents’ interaction through an earpiece. Parents are subsequently coached one-on-one to further establish a specialized skill set that models what was practiced during the session.
What is Speech-Language Pathology (SLP)?
Speech-Language Pathology (SLP) aims to improve speech and language skills ranging from voice and sound production, fluency, comprehension, expression, and early language skills. A speech-language pathologist diagnoses and treats communication and swallowing problems. For children, the therapy sessions often involve reading stories and play, including language-based games. SLP can offer numerous benefits to the child and their ability to comprehend and express ideas. It also improves school readiness by enhancing the flow of speech.
What is Exposure Therapy (ET)?
Exposure therapy is a type of cognitive behavior therapy where the child is exposed to something that provokes anxiety. During ET, the child unlearns patterns of avoidance by working with a therapist to overcome fears and anxieties centered on the object or situation. ET works with the child and family to identify specific fears. The therapy uses techniques to gradually expose the child in controlled doses associated with the stimulus. Exposure therapy is an effective model for modifying the child’s thoughts and experiences from anxiety-provoking to establishing a feeling of neutrality and no sense of danger. ET is beneficial in treating anxiety disorders such as phobias and separation or social anxiety.
What is Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)?
Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy integrates the science behind behavior and learning to
increase and reinforce communication, social, learning, and fine motor skills. ABA therapy helps improve skills such as completing tasks, implementing self-regulation and transferring skills to different environments. Treatment goals are established in collaboration with the therapist and are based on the age and behaviors being exhibited.
Applied behavior analysis consists of two main components, including positive reinforcement and Antecedent-Behavior-Consequence (ABC) Model. Positive reinforcement occurs when the child reaches a goal behavior and is rewarded by something of value to the child. The ABC model looks at what happens before a behavior occurs, the behavior itself and what happens after the behavior. This model helps identify the harmful behavior, the triggers behind the behavior, and the effect it has on the child’s well-being. It works to improve basic skills while decreasing unhealthy behaviors.
What type of therapy is right for my child?
Overall, there are many options available to support the child’s specific needs that will promote their holistic well-being. Contact your child’s healthcare provider to explore what option is best suited to address your child’s needs. You can then curate a personalized plan with your child’s therapist. Not sure who to ask for help? We can recommend who to contact based on your child’s current needs and other factors. Please contact us for assistance.
About the Author
Alexis Takagiis an Educational Specialist at Learnfully, Inc specializing in English and mathematical tutoring. She is a doctoral candidate studying social justice leadership in higher education at Santa Clara University’s School of Education and Counseling Psychology. Alexis is currently researching how memorable messages (affirmations) about school impact academic retention and growth mindset.
Caregivers (and their children) have enough to worry about, and while they shouldn’t have to research the correct terminology to describe themselves, it’s important to represent learning disabilities and differences correctly. In this article, we break down terms practitioners use when discussing learning needs and challenges so you can feel comfortable when referring to loved ones.
What are Learning Disabilities?
A learning disability is a permanent disorder that affects the manner in which individuals with normal or often above average intelligence acquire, retain, and express information. Such difficulties in processing information can significantly interfere with academic or social development. Learning disabilities are commonly recognized in adults as difficulty in one or more of these areas: reading, comprehension, spelling, written expression, handwriting, mathematics, oral expression, and problem-solving. Adults with learning disabilities may also have perceptual difficulties. It is important to remember that no two students with learning disabilities have the same profile of strengths and weaknesses. Examples of diagnosable learning disabilities include, but are not limited to:
But wait, didn’t we just say a disability is a disorder? So, what is a disorder then? Simply put, having a learning disorder means a child has difficulty in one or more areas of learning, even when overall intelligence or motivation is not affected. Some learning challenges are defined as a disorder by clinicians because the term can be used more broadly to describe anything that creates excessive persistent and severe (well beyond age and gender) symptoms that lead to harm, impairment and, as a result, suffering. Thus, all learning disabilities are disorders, but not all disorders are qualified as a medical diagnosis.
Ok, so what is a Learning Dysfunction?
Dysfunction is traditionally used to describe one’s lack of executive functioning abilities and is not commonly used to describe learning disabilities. Executive functioning—the cognitive skills such as working memory, emotional control and cognitive flexibility—is the precursor to all other learning pathways. If you are unable to cognitively function effectively and efficiently, then your daily operations and happenings can become chaotic and impact your ability to learn and function fully.
These are all Learning Differences
Diversity and variety is what makes life worth living. Every single brain is different and requires different strategies and care to fully thrive. At Learnfully, we utilize the term “differences” to explain the normality of variability among us. Neurodivergent and neurotypical brains all learn differently and these differences contribute to the greater good. Neurodiversity is the range of differences in individual brain function and behavioral traits, regarded as part of normal variation in the human population. Learning differences take into account individual learning motivators; learner aspirations, interests, experience and cultural background; and individual students’ strengths and needs.
“I think the concept of Neurodiversity has been world-changing, by giving us a new perspective on humanity.” – Sociologist and author Judy Singer
Can you believe it’s already October?
That means that the days are getting cooler and shorter. There is seemingly a pumpkin spice flavor for just about everything. And parents and kids have settled into their new school year routines.
October also means that it is Learning Disabilities Awareness Month. As former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said about the month, “This is a time to understand how these disabilities impact students and their families, to reflect on the significant achievements that these students have made, and to renew our commitment to creating a stronger future for them.”
At Learnfully, we take it a step further: we believe this month is a time to recognize and celebrate our differences. We recently launched the LDA Toolkit page to help our community share a message of awareness, empathy, and understanding for all of our learners in need.
In the last few Octobers, though, it’s been hard to feel celebratory. In 2020, we were in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, gearing up for our first Covid winter. In 2021, we were still dealing with surges in variants and a cobbling together of remote and in-person learning. People with learning disabilities, who are generally more reliant on the rhythms of routine, were impacted more than others by the disruptions caused by the pandemic.
In the same breath, there were some silver linings. We became a more aware society. Mental health was no longer a taboo subject. People became more open about their vulnerabilities – including how they work best, learn best, process information, and function. Companies became more accommodating to the different needs of their employees. Parents who saw their children everyday in the virtual classroom, gained a greater understanding of their needs, how they learn, and how they interact with their teachers and classmates. These insights made us better parents, but also quicker to act when issues arise. We learned first-hand about the value of collaboration between parents and teachers—and now come informed about our child’s needs.
Now, we’re emerging on the other side of the pandemic. Children have returned to the classroom, even as hybrid and remote work remains prominent – which means parents are more present in their learners’ daily lives. For all these reasons, this October feels different from recent years. It feels like there is finally a twinkle of light at the end of the tunnel—finally an October worth celebrating.
The idea of designating a specific month as an “awareness month” implies that the wider public is generally unaware of a certain condition or issue. That the public is unaware of a problem.
But as we kickoff October and Learning Disability Awareness Month, the Learnfully team has a different perspective. We’re not trying to raise awareness of something negative, but rather call attention to something we see as a positive. We see this October a celebration: a celebration of diversity and of differences.
We believe all of us learn differently. But what is most important is that we are all able to learn fully.
When you hear names like Elon Musk, Nikola Tesla, Daryl Hannah, Anthony Hopkins, and Bill Gates, the word ‘autism’ is probably the furthest thing from your mind. These names are equated with success, innovation, talent and creativity. As you may have guessed by now based on the title of this article, these well-known icons have high-functioning autism or identifies as autistic.
According to the CDC, there has been a sharp increase in autism cases in recent years. In 2016, 1 in 54 children was diagnosed with autism—up from 1 in 150 in 2000. But these numbers are misleading. While it’s true more children are being diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, it’s not because autism suddenly became more prevalent. More diagnoses are occurring because of a better understanding of the disorder, and due to more sophisticated assessment tools to help identify these children.
Better tools are necessary since many children on the autistic spectrum are considered high functioning (they require little assistance to function in their daily lives), making their autism difficult to detect. Before 2013, high-functioning autism (HFA) was diagnosed as Asperger Syndrome, but it was reclassified to ensure those on the high end of the spectrum had the same access to support.
Why the Autism Diagnosis is Important
My son was diagnosed with high-functioning autism when he was seven years old (as I’ve previously shared, along with my experiences raising him). It was not a simple process. I knew he was different and had been from specialist to specialist, but it took a while to pinpoint exactly what was happening. Many people didn’t understand my quest for a diagnosis, proclaiming it wasn’t fair to put a label on him. But they were missing the point: when you know what you’re dealing with, you become empowered. You can educate yourself and understand your child better. It prevents you from getting frustrated when they behave in certain ways because you know why.
As the names I dropped earlier indicate, an HFA diagnosis doesn’t prevent someone from having a reasonably straightforward education experience, functioning in society, or establishing families and careers. Still, it does mean that they’re often misunderstood.
Because high-functioning autism isn’t obvious, children are expected to behave in a socially acceptable manner—which can be extremely challenging. As a result, they are often ostracized, as they are still learning to adapt and adjust to their environment (sometimes referred to as ‘adapt or die’).
The diagnosis also comes with the obvious stereotyping. “Oh, you must love Big Bang Theory; you’re just like Sheldon Cooper!’ Sheldon exhibits extreme misanthropic behaviour and obsessive compulsion, sprinkled with a hefty dose of genius. And while my son often displays these typical behaviors, it is never to that extreme—and the same can be said for most people with HFA.
When you visit a school for gifted and talented children, you will be astonished to see how many of them meet the criteria for high-functioning autism (I experienced this many times over during my eight years teaching at a school for gifted and talented). Like those with autism, gifted children have heightened senses and are extremely sensitive to sound, light, sensations, and other sensory experiences. And because they are cognitively advanced, they have difficulty fitting in and interacting with their neurotypical peers.
Anticipate Different Behavior with Children who are Autistic
Children with high-functioning autism (HFA) tend to have difficulty regulating their emotions. This can lead to extreme emotional reactions that others may consider over the top. Conversely, they may under-react to situations others would find distressing.
My son, now 18, had many incidents and misunderstandings throughout his childhood. When he was six, his beloved grandfather died. People were perplexed when he asked if we would ‘flush grandpa down the toilet’. It sounded callous, but his only experience with death had been with his pet goldfish.
In high school, a teacher was highly offended when he stated that he didn’t feel sad when the main character died of cancer in a book they were studying. She said he was cold and had no empathy for those who had lost loved ones to cancer. She didn’t give him a chance to explain, but he later told me that after having lost loved ones in real life—which really hurt—he couldn’t grieve for a fictional character because they weren’t real. Fair enough, right?
He would also become overwhelmed by too much sensory input and was often in trouble for ‘sleeping’ in class. The reality was that to hear and take in the auditory input, he would close his eyes to prevent the visual input from distracting him. And, of course, as his mother, I was constantly accused of making excuses for him if I tried to explain how HFA works.
HFA also comes with what others might think are strange habits and questionable manners, like obsessive tendencies and ritualistic behavior. Children with HFA are comforted by routine and predictability. As a result, unexpected deviations from the plan can seem catastrophic. For my son, Monday was red sock day, Tuesday was blue sock day, and so on. One Monday morning we discovered one of his red socks had disappeared, going to the big pile of single socks in the sky. It was the end of the world for him.
Children with HFA are also extremely literal and don’t always understand the nuances of figurative language. My son was horrified when someone asked if they could ‘pick his brain’. And the challenges are not limited to verbal language. Understanding body language, interpreting facial expressions, and ‘reading a room’ are almost impossible. This has made it very challenging to create and maintain friendships.
As a parent of a child with HFA, I have made it my mission to educate others on the nuances and complex nature of autism. Proper understanding is critical, so these young people have the space to be exactly who they are without apology. In addition, their mental health needs as much nurturing as the next child—perhaps, even more, considering the additional challenges they face, like rejection and intolerance.
The Challenges Today Often Become Successes Tomorrow
Incidentally, Elon Musk attended the same high school as me. He hated it and school was a miserable time. He was bullied, tormented and even assaulted. Yet the school wears his alumni status as a badge of honor. I was reminded of this when chatting with a friend who moved to the UK recently. Her son also has HFA, and his first day at school had been a challenge. She knows my son has also had his fair share of teachers who didn’t have the patience to understand him. I told her, “The irony is that in 20 years, the teachers that gave them the hardest time will sit around their dinner tables, boasting to their guests that they taught our children.”
About the Author
Nicola is mom to James, a 2E 18-year-old, and she lives in Johannesburg, South Africa. Nicola is a writer who is focused on supporting parents and teachers of children who are “different” according to commonly-held views. Before starting her career as a writer, she specialized in gifted education and taught at Radford House School, a school for gifted children.
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