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Executive functioning disorder, explained

What is executive functioning?

Executive functioning is the neurological and physical process by which individuals create and complete small goals to accomplish an overall task. Executive functioning is the way our brains tell our bodies to complete a task, from start to finish. If you really want the breakdown, check out this handy dandy list from ADDitude:

  1. Analyze a task
  2. Plan how to address the task
  3. Organize the steps needed to carry out the task
  4. Develop timelines for completing the task
  5. Adjust or shift the steps, if needed, to complete the task
  6. Complete the task in a timely way


Most children struggle with executive functioning, often through their preschool years. You may have noticed that sometimes it can be tough to tell a kiddo between the ages of 2-8 years old to help with chores. Executive functioning skills develop over time, just as a child’s brain and body does. However, for many individuals with learning difficulties and ADHD, executive functioning skills can be a difficulty.

What does executive functioning disorder mean?

Executive functioning disorder can mean something different for everyone that has it. Since everyone is different, different people may struggle with various aspects of executive functioning in a multitude of ways.

For those with executive functioning disorder, completing daily tasks can be likened to that of taking a road trip without a map. You’ll get somewhere, but probably not where you had wanted to go. These difficulties can manifest as a number of things, specifically the following few bullet points:

  • Difficulty initiating and finishing tasks
  • Difficulty switching from task to task
  • Difficulty problem solving
  • Problems regulating emotions
  • Issues following directions
  • Struggles keeping track of time
  • Struggle with math and reading skills
  • Difficulty scheduling
  • Difficulty remaining organized
  • Impulsivity without realizing consequences
  • Difficulty planning ahead
  • Not always able to theorize potential outcomes
  • Difficulty in memory and attention

Let it be said that a lot of the hallmark characteristics of executive functioning disorder are very similar to that of ADHD, but the two diagnoses are separate. Similarly, self-regulation is different from executive functioning, although the two are alike.

Who can diagnose executive functioning disorder?

If you suspect that your child may have executive functioning disorder, first talk to your primary care physician. Your pediatrician should be able to give you a referral to a child psychologist or a psychologist or pediatric neuropsychologist. In no way, shape, or form, is this article to serve as a means of holistic diagnosis of a child, but rather as a resource or guide to help you relay your concern to your child’s primary care doctor.

Who struggles with it?

Individuals on the Autism spectrum, ADHD, and learning disorders are a few of the different types of individuals who struggle with executive functioning disorder. That being said, executive functioning disorder is sometimes a difficulty of individuals who have also suffered head or brain trauma, and dementia or Alzheimer’s.

What’s going on in the brain?

For individuals who struggle with executive functioning, the frontal lobe is largely responsible. The frontal lobe is the part of the brain that sits right behind your forehead and controls cognitive skills. To really help you understand the job of the frontal lobe in the brain, here’s a pretty succinct definition from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry:

The frontal lobe is the part of the brain that helps people to organize, plan, pay attention, and make decisions. Parts of the frontal lobe may mature a few years later in people with ADHD.

The frontal lobe functions as kind of a way that our personality develops and how we interact with our environments. Due to the fact that executive functioning primarily affects the frontal lobe of the brain, it can be difficult for individuals with ADHD, SPD, and ASD have brains whose frontal lobe often matures slower than neurotypical peers. Again, citing the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the frontal lobe is responsible for the following:

  • Problem Solving
  • Memory
  • Language
  • Motivation
  • Judgment
  • Impulse control
  • Social behavior
  • Planning
  • Decision-making
  • Attention
  • Ability to delay gratification
  • Time perception


Sound familiar to you? Right, it’s pretty similar to the difficulties individuals with executive functioning disorder struggle with. This, as previously mentioned, is due to the fact that individuals with SPD, ASD, and ADHD, have a frontal lobe that matures slower than the norm, which can cause them to struggle with executive functioning. Individuals who have sustained head trauma or brain injury may have an affected frontal lobe and consequently, their executive functioning abilities can be impaired. Those with Alzheimer’s or dementia may have difficulty with executive functioning due to the fact that the entirety of the brain is affected by memory loss, causing difficulty focusing and completing tasks.

How can I help it?

One of the main things that help with executive functioning is therapy. Therapy, therapy, therapy. You really can’t go wrong with enlisting the help of an occupational therapist.

In addition, visual schedules can be a great way to help individuals complete an overall task. Spelling out the ins and outs of how to complete a task in a visual way is one of the best ways to help a kiddo.

On the same note as visual schedules, try out a checklist, or a to-do list. Having a specific order of things expressed in a visual way is one of the best ways an individual with executive functioning disorder may be benefited.

Individuals with ADHD and SPD are oftentimes highly motivated by visuals, and the use of visual schedules and visual cues can help them with their executive functioning. In addition, try to minimize distractions by keeping the workspace and learning environments relatively clean and tidy.

Use a Time Timer. As we stated before, staying on task in a reasonable timeframe can be difficult for those with executive functioning issues. A Time Timer is a way to visually see and understand how much time is to be put into a task. These are great for everyone that suffers from executive functioning disorder, from ADHD, ASD, brain injury, and dementia or Alzheimer’s.

(insert pic of time timer)

Communicate the expectations of how to complete a task. Spelling out the ins and outs of how to accomplish a task, and then allowing the individual to complete the task on their own can genuinely benefit an individual who struggles with executive functioning.

Similarly, allow them to problem-solve. This can help in the process, determine what works and what doesn’t. Don’t show them how to complete a task and then figuratively hold their hand until that task is done. That type of assistance doesn’t actually help anyone. Giving them the freedom to fail can allow them to learn how to succeed.

Going forward

Like anything, these kinds of things take time. Helping your loved one with executive functioning is not going to be a quick fix. It’s like gardening—you need Miracle Grow, sunlight, water, and a lot of patience. Just remember that even on the days where it feels like you’re walking backward with progress, you’re at least working towards something. It’s okay to have setbacks. Keep on keeping on, and you will see improvements over time.

Why adaptive bikes and tricycles?

As humans, exercise is kind of important. You can see a lot of advertisements by giant sports companies about the importance of getting things done, “13.1” half-marathon accomplishment stickers on the backs of cars, and devices that track our daily movement. Exercise, to us as human beings, is pretty important.

For individuals with special needs and disabilities, exercise can be a bit of a unique challenge. Certainly, they are oftentimes able to exercise in their own ways. For many individuals with special needs, adaptive tricycles are the way to go.

It’s inclusive

Remember those bike rides when you were a kid, zooming around the block with your neighbors? Bikes are such a fun, simplistic, and joyous thing, and including everyone on bike rides with the neighbors or with the family is one of the best ways to help individuals with special needs socialize.

The fun thing about inclusion is that, when everyone is included, everyone wins.

It’s therapeutic

Bicycles can encourage hand-eye coordination, hand and feet strength, and overall strength of those that use it. Exercise can be good for strength building and cardio, both of which can really help with overall health.

Being outside and riding over smooth, paved road or gravel can provide sensory input for the kiddo. The pedals and handlebars can give proprioceptive input and allow them to have a better understanding of their environment.

It encourages independence

Allowing your kiddo to get themselves onto their adaptive bike, ride their adaptive bike, and then get off of it can encourage so much independence and confidence in them. The process can help them, from start to finish, understand their own autonomous independence, as well as genuinely give them the confidence boost of “I did it!”

Cycling forward

Adaptive exercise equipment for individuals with special needs can have a multitude of benefits for just about everyone. That being said, while these tips may work for some, they might not work for everyone. And that’s okay.

Sensory rooms, explained.

Imagine a softly lit, quiet space filled with captivating lights, soothing sounds, and cozy swings. It’s like a playground but intended for taking a breather instead of burning off excess energy. That’s right, we’re talking about a sensory room or multi-sensory environment. Everything in the space is carefully chosen and placed so that individuals with SPD, ASD, or have difficulties integrating their senses can chill and play in an engaging and calming manner.

The history

Sensory rooms have been around for a while. They started in the early 1970s by Dutch therapists Jan Hulsegge and Ad Verheul, whose ultimate goal was to help people with disabilities enjoy their environments by slowly integrating play and sensory experiences.

With the rise of technology and social media, their popularity has grown a lot in recent years. You can find sensory rooms in homes, schools, clinics, nursing homes, and even workplaces nowadays.

Sensory integration, proprioception, and stimming

Sensory rooms are designed to help the following: sensory integration, proprioception, and stimming. All of the aforementioned words are important in understanding the core of what it is that sensory rooms do and how they can help people.

Sensory integration, according to Research Autism, is

…an innate neurobiological process and refers to the integration and interpretation of sensory stimulation from the environment by the brain. In contrast, sensory integrative dysfunction is a disorder in which sensory input is not integrated or organized appropriately in the brain and may produce varying degrees of problems in development, information processing, and behavior.

Individuals who have sensory integrative dysfunction are often referred to as “sensory seekers.” These individuals who are categorized as sensory seekers are individuals that may be diagnosed with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). An individual with SPD may have trouble processing any of the sensory input in different settings. The senses ultimately manifest as signals in our neurological pathways, and those signals might not be interpreted differently than individuals without SPD.

Proprioception is kind of related to sensory integration, in that proprioception is understanding where one’s body begins and ends in space based on the interpretation of feedback an individual is receiving from their environment. Many individuals with special needs particularly struggle with proprioceptive feedback because many they have difficulty with sensory processing and sensory integration.

Stimming, otherwise known as self-stimulation, is a by-product of sensory integrative dysfunction. The behaviors liken to that of hand flapping, jumping, rocking, and yes, chewing on everything. These behaviors can be relatively pronounced, frequent, and repetitive behaviors. Individuals often engage in stimming due to the fact that their environment is not providing them with enough sensory stimulation. Sensory rooms provide additional stimulation in a focused and controlled manner.

Who can benefit from a sensory room or a multi-sensory environment?

Short answer, anyone. While these environments are typically associated with children, individuals of all ages and abilities can benefit from a safe space where they can regulate themselves and renew focus. People are starting to take notice of those benefits, too. Sensory rooms used to only be found in homes, clinics, and schools. Now they can be found in nursing homes, workplaces, and public areas like zoos and museums.

Why might an individual benefit from a sensory room?

The reasons why an individual might benefit from a sensory room is ultimately reliant upon the individual sensory needs of the user.

The three things we mentioned in the previous section, sensory integration, proprioception, and stimming are highly benefitted from a sensory space. Sensory seekers can engage with tactile feedback that can stimulate their senses, as well as provide proprioceptive input. For example, a Snug Hug Cozy Swing can benefit all three of the previously mentioned deficits within any individual.

In helping calm the senses, multi-sensory environments can help focus an individual who is otherwise often distracted. Visually and physically engaging an easily distracted individual with their environment has proven to increase their attention span over time.

Some of the items in a multi-sensory environment or sensory room can be items that require an individual to engage their fine motor development. For example, kiddos with poor fine motor skills can work on sharpening their dexterity by playing in a ball pit, throwing balls, playing in a sensory sandbox, or engaging in wall panel work.

Sensory rooms provide a much-needed break from the hustle and bustle of real life and engage a child in their most important work—play—while also giving them the added benefit of some ninja therapy.

What types of things work well together in a sensory room?

Planning a multi-sensory environment starts with the sensory needs of the intended user or users of that space. Sensory room bundles and kits can be a convenient starting point, but there’s really no one-size-fits-all sensory experience. An occupational therapist who can provide a sensory screen can help you pinpoint what items will be most beneficial.

Space is also a consideration. Multi-sensory environments are often defined by how much space can be dedicated to them. That’s not to say an entire room is any more effective than a small corner of a home. Smaller spaces just require a little more imagination and forethought as you’re planning.

All that being said, here’s a quick list of some of the most popular sensory room items at eSpecial Needs.

  1. Fiber Optic Lighting

One of the most engaging and durable items for a sensory room or a multi-sensory space is anything of the fiberoptic category. From a fiberoptic waterfall to a sensory bean bag with a spray of fiber optic lights, fiber optics can fulfill some of the sensory needs of its users.

  1. LED Glow Panel

The gentle, color shifting lights of the LED Glow Panel can cast a calming hue of bright colors across a room. The slow changing effect of the panel can visually stimulate the user as well as provide them with an overall calming effect.

  1. Sensory Sandbox

This is the tactile item that engages the user’s sense of touch. The small sensory sand pellets are designed for proprioceptive feedback in a way that doesn’t stick to the user’s skin in the same way that sand sometimes will. Not to mention the sandbox itself shifts colors slowly between a full spectrum of the rainbow.

  1. Ball Pit

You can’t not have fun with a ball pit in the room. Kids of any age can jump in and have fun. The ball pits are safe, soft, and fun ways to make sure that kids get the sensory integration and proprioceptive feedback that they might need, while also sharpening their hand-eye coordination skills and some fine motor skills.

  1. Crash pad

There are so many things in this world that you’re not allowed to jump on, but the crash pad is not one of them. Anyone can flop themselves into the squishy foam of the crash pad and not get in trouble for it. Crashing in a safe manner can help kids improve their proprioception by directly interacting with their environment.

  1. Wall projector

The Opti Aura Projector provides shifting colors and pictures in a calm manner is another great tool to help kids focus. The Multi-Colored Solar Liquid Effect Wheel is consistent, yet ever-changing, in a way that is both surprising and predictable. It casts a calming hue of light across space.

  1. Bubble Tube

Bubble tubes are one of the coolest and simplest toys in a sensory room. They engage in auditory and visual senses.

  1. Swings

You really can’t go wrong with a swing. Whether it’s a snug hug, a clinical platform swing, or just a good ol’ net swing, they’re a great way to encourage both proprioceptive feedback, vestibular feedback, and normalize centripetal motion.

  1. Activity Wall Panels

Fine motor tools never looked so good. Activity wall panels are a great way to help individuals who need fine motor skills sharpen their dexterity in a fun and engaging way.