Executive Functioning and Neurodiversity

By Dr Freya Spicer-White, Head of Neurodiversity Practice and Standards

What is Executive Functioning?

Everyone’s brains have lots of jobs to do and when we are awake our brains are usually pretty busy.

The front part of our brains is called the frontal lobe and prefrontal cortex.

These front parts of our brains have some important jobs like:

Planning: Planning helps you decide how you will do something, what items you might need and who is going to do it with you. Planning is about thinking ahead and anticipating what could happen next.

Organising: Organising helps you sort your time and your environment so that you don’t feel overwhelmed. You can organise your time by guessing roughly how long a task will take and you can organise your environment by arranging where things go.

Working Memory: This is your mental sticky-note. It helps you keep track of different pieces of information, like remembering what you need to put on your shopping list, whilst you find a pen to write it down.

Emotion Regulation: Sometimes, our brains can help us to stay calm under pressure. Emotion regulation helps you manage your feelings so that they don’t get too overwhelming.

Task Switching: Task switching helps you to move from one task to another. It helps you to start and finish something before moving on to another task. It can also help you to return to task you are half way through.

Differences in Neurodivergent Young People


Unique Problem-Solving: Neurodivergent individuals often see the world from a different perspective. They can solve problems in creative ways that others might not have thought of, they can have some real ‘out-of-the-box’ ideas.

Passion-Driven: Once a neurodivergent individual is interested in something, their level of focus can be amazing. They can become experts in areas they love, diving much deeper and learning more.

Detail-Oriented: Many neurodivergent individuals are great at noticing small details which means they can develop a more comprehensive understanding of a subject. They might also see or notice things that you do not.

Empathy and Depth of Feeling: Some neurodivergent individuals experience emotions intensely and can often understand the emotional states of others quite deeply.

Exceptional Memory in Specialized Areas: Neurodivergent individuals may be able to display incredible recall in topics that interest them, almost like having a “photographic memory” for specific subjects. They can also have amazing memories for life events.


Time Management: Neurodivergent individuals may struggle with estimating how much time they need for tasks accurately or experience the passing of time differently. They may be late or miss deadlines because they might struggle to manage their time.

Organisation: Keeping track of multiple tasks, pieces of school work, or activities might be overwhelming. Equally they may struggle to keep their bedrooms and personal space tidy and organised. They may lose their belongings, even ones that are really important to them, such as their mobile phones.

Emotional Regulation: Neurodivergent individuals can often have feelings that can come on super-strong and make it challenging to think clearly or make decisions.

Task Initiation: The process of starting a new task can be a significant hurdle, often requiring a lot of mental effort. To a person watching, it might look as if the person is being lazy, stubborn or challenging, however it can feel like a physical block or barrier is in the way for a neurodivergent individual when they try to start a task. This can happen, even when they feel really motivated to start.

Working Memory Challenges: Even if they excel in remembering details in areas they are passionate about, keeping track of multiple pieces of information can be difficult. They might struggle to follow multiple steps of instructions or struggle to remember something someone just told them.

Top Tips for Teachers, Parents, and Carers:

Be Patient and Give Time: Understand that neurodivergent individuals may need extra time to process information and complete tasks. When you have stopped talking, allow a long pause to give them time to process. Do not repeat yourself immediately as this can actually extend processing time for some people. Sit in the silence whilst they process.

Use Visual Supports: Visuals like timetables, now and next boards and symbols can be invaluable for planning and organisation. Visuals provide a reference point that can reduce anxiety and clarify expectations. You can also always return to a visual because it remains the same so increases consistency across teams.

Break Down Tasks: Convert large, overwhelming tasks into smaller, more achievable parts. This method makes the task seem less daunting and provides a roadmap for success. It also makes sure the individual has regular successes when they complete a part of task.

Consistency is Key: Consistent routines offer a sense of stability. This predictability can help alleviate stress and anxiety because they know what is expected from them and what is likely to happen next.

Encourage Short Breaks: Short, frequent breaks can help to maintain focus and prevent mental tiredness. These breaks can be physical, for example a movement break where the person can get up and move about; or can be stationary, they stop their work focus and maybe do some breathing techniques or play with a fiddle toy.

Create a Safe Space: A designated quiet area can be immensely helpful for periods of sensory overload or emotional overwhelm. You can encourage the person to go to their safe space when they need some time away to recharge their batteries.

Utilize Positive Reinforcement: Positive reinforcement like verbal praise and meaningful spontaneous rewards can significantly boost confidence and motivation.

And remember…

ASK: Encourage open discussions with the neurodivergent individual about how they feel, what they find challenging, and what strategies are working for them. This dialogue can provide valuable insights into how to adapt your approach.

ACCEPT: Recognise that neurodivergent people are not all the same. They have unique needs, strengths, and preferences. Be prepared to accept their differences and adapt your approaches to meet these individual needs.

DEVELOP: Think of ways to teach new skills, techniques like deep breathing or sensory coping strategies can make a world of difference in emotional regulation. Model and encourage the use of calendars and organisation Apps for planning organisation.

By incorporating these strategies and recognising the unique abilities and needs of neurodivergent individuals, we can create inclusive and empowering environments for them to thrive.