Teaching Organizational Skills to Individuals with Autism: Executive Functioning Part 1

During the coming week, I will post parts of Marcia Garcia Winner‘s article on Teaching Organizational Skills to Individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Her article benefits all students who lack this much needed skill not only students with autism spectrum disorder; therefore, teachers, parents, and all who live or work with an individual who needs to learn organizational skills that include Executive Functioning will benefit greatly from Garcia’s sound and sage advice.

This article appeared in an Autism and Asperger’s Digest issue entitled Homework & Organizational Strategies.  It is reprinted with permission of the publisher. We have added the photos.

First, Marcia Garcia Winner explains what is  Executive Functioning (EF) , why it is important, and how to develop this life-skill. Then the author guides you with 10 Steps to Foster Organization Skills.

 Marcia Garcia Winner author of article on Organization Skills But first, Who Is Marcia Garcia Winner?

Michelle Garcia Winner, MA, CCC-SLP, is internationally recognized as an innovative clinician, enthusiastic workshop presenter and prolific author in the field of social thinking and social cognitive functioning. Visit www.socialthinking.com  for additional information.

On Winner’s site we learn more about her: “Marcia Garcia Winner specializes in the treatment of individuals with social-cognitive deficits: those with diagnoses such as high-functioning autism, Asperger Syndrome and nonverbal learning disorder. She began teaching Social Thinking® in 1995 to brighter students when she went to work for a high school district as the district’s speech language pathologist. Social Thinking was born out of necessity as a way to reach those “bright but socially clueless students” that needed more information than just what social skill to use. They needed to know why they should bother to use that skill.”

Part 1 What is Executive Functioning (EF)?

by Marcia Garcia Winner

Our daily lives are made up of an endless stream of thoughts, decisions, actions and reactions to the people and environment in which we live. The internal and external actions fit together, sometimes seamlessly sometimes not, largely dependent upon a set of invisible yet highly important skills we call Executive Functioning (EF).

Teaching Organizational Skills to Individuals with Autism: Executive FunctioningExecutive Functioning (EF)   involves

  • planning
  • organizing
  • sequencing
  •  prioritizing
  • shifting attention
  • time management

Executive Functioning can be well-developed in some people (think traffic controllers, wedding planners, business CEOs, etc.) and less developed in others. The organizational skills are vital in all parts of life, from making coffee to running a profitable business. The skills develop naturally, without specific, formal training, and we all have them to some degree or at least, we all assume we all have them.

Things are never quite as simple as they seem, and these EF skills are no exception. They require a multiered hierarchy of decision and actions, all coming together within the framework of time, knowledge and resources.

Imagine trying to navigate life when Executive Functioning skills are impaired or nonexistent, as they are with individuals on the autism spectrum. For most of us, our imagination won’t stretch that far. Therefore, we assume all these kids – especially those who are “bright” – have EF skills and we act and react to our spectrum children or students as if they did.

Where to Begin on Teaching Organizational Skills?

Nowhere does this EF skill deficit cause more turmoil than in the area of homework, producing monstrous levels of anxiety and dread in students, parents and teachers alike. The myriad of details that need to be accomplished in a student’s class, school day or week can overwhelm even the healthiest student; it can shut down our kids on the spectrum.

I am regularly asked: if tasks are so overwhelming to their EF systems, should we just avoid having students deal with them? The answer is an unequivocal emphatic “NO!” Organizational skills are life skills, not just school skills, and even though they are “mandatory prerequisites” for succeeding at school, like social skills they are rarely directly taught. Few states include explicit teaching of EF skills in their “standards of education.”

So where do we start? First, by understanding how complex organizational systems become by the time students reach middle school. We can only be good teachers if we appreciate the demands the skills we teach place on our students.

Second, by understanding organization as a skill set, which involves static and dynamic systems.

  • Static organizational systems and skills are structured: same thing, same time, same place, same way. Static organizational tasks are introduced in kindergarten, first and second grade. We break down tasks and ask students to explicitly complete very defined units of information, at a certain time and place. Write your name at the top of the page, read the instructions, complete the work, when done turn the paper over and sit quietly until time is up.
  • Dynamic organizational systems and skills involve constant adjustments to priorities, workloads, timeframes, tasks and places. They are less teacher-directed and more student-directed.

By 4th grade, teachers are introducing dynamic assignments to students with moderate levels of support. Soon after that we expect students to be able to manage increasingly dynamic workloads with little extra support or direct teaching. By high school, almost all school and homework has dynamic components requiring students to use EF skills to allocate time, resources, places to work, etc.

Here’s the good news: most of us understand that to tackle a dynamic task we have to break it down into its static elements. The dynamic part of the task requires thinking; the static part of the task requires doing. A dynamic assignment such as writing an essay requires a significant portion of the task be spent thinking about the topic before the static tasks of actually writing the paper at a table, at a specified hour, etc. One of the great challenges for our students on the spectrum is learning to break down dynamic tasks into more concrete, static chunks of work.

Organizational Skill and Students with Autism

Fostering organizational skills in students with ASD requires an evolutionary approach towards teaching students, one that is ideally started at an early age. Students hone organizational skills starting in preschool, when we first ask them to clean up their toys. Teachers can accurately identify organized versus disorganized students as early as kindergarten. By 4th grade teachers expect students to be proficient with EF skills.

Teaching Organizational Skills to Individuals with Autism: Executive FunctioningHowever, the reality is that the majority of our students with autism of all ages desperately need help with homework, specifically, and EF skills in general. Help is available. The following 10 steps illuminate specific aspects of EF skills that increase students’ static and dynamic organizational coping mechanisms. While these steps are interrelated and synergistic, avoid trying to teach them all at the same time. Each may be difficult to grasp and master for the student with ASD.

  • Allow learning to take its own pace.
  •  Keep expectations realistic.
  •  Talk things through regularly.
  • Probe for misunderstandings or miscommunication.

Learning EF skills is a dynamic system of its own, with its static components. Make sure your child or student experiences success and feels competent at each stage of the process.

Teaching Organizational Skills to Individuals with ASD by Marcia Garcia Winner, CPP, SLP, Part 2  and following parts will be her clearly, detailed  10 Steps to Foster Organization Skills to help your child/student to acquire organization skills.

Part 2;  Homework: Clearly Define What Needs to be Done, Motivation, and Reward – Organizational Skills

  • Step 1, Clearly Define What Needs to be Done
  • Step 2, Move It with Motivation

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