Neurodiversity and executive function

September 20, 2022
Min Read
Written by:
Ellie Greenhow
Executive functions are a set of cognitive processes or thinking skills that are necessary to plan and organise our actions, in order to achieve our goals.

When executive functioning is compromised, there can be challenges in planning, prioritisation, organisation, impulse control and staying on task.

What are Executive Function Challenges?

Everybody is different in their executive functioning strengths and challenges, and neurodivergent individuals can have very varied ‘spiky profiles’  

People may have challenges in relation to the following areas of executive functioning:


  • Getting going - especially when initiating uninteresting tasks. This is referred to as inertia
  • Procrastination - getting past thinking about the task to doing the task
  • Poor time management - not being able to foresee how long a task will take  
  • Thinking you need to do something but not remembering what it is.

Working memory:

  • Like a computer scratch disk - allows you to hold information in your mind while making links.
  • Challenges with short term memory - remembering what has just been said or remembering a sequence
  • Processing different streams of information - like listening to someone while remembering you need to remember your keys, for example.

Emotional and impulse control:

  • Not having internal prompts to remind you what task you need to do next, in order of importance  
  • Getting frustrated at yourself for forgetting to do important things, especially when others see you as lazy or incompetent  
  • Difficulties regulating alertness to complete hard tasks when the interesting parts have been done.
  • Finding it hard to shut off your busy brain which can affect sleep patterns
  • Experiencing RSD (Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria) which can be extremely debilitating  
  • Being impulsive and not considering the context  
  • Difficulty adjusting and graduating your pace, or changing gear. This can lead to an all or nothingmindset.


  • Challenges sustaining focus
  • Difficulties shifting from one task or topic to another  
  • Slower gaining information and losing focus easily

Hindsight and foresight:

  • Harder learning from past experiences and then repeating the same actions again and again
  • Difficulties with predicting future challenges

Time awareness:

This has been called “time blindness” by Psychiatrist Russell Barkley

  • Remembering to put appointments into your diary
  • Allocating the appropriate time to a task
  • Splitting a task into parts and recognizing how long each will take

Developing strategies to make everyday life easier

The good news is that once we recognise our executive function challenges, we can develop strategies that reduce the negative impact to help make everyday life easier.  

You may already have some personal strategies in place. Here are some that might be helpful if you haven’t already considered them:

Check your barometer  

Throughout the day check in with yourself. How are you coping? Do you need to take time out? Do you need a drink or something to eat? When we are tired, hungry or overloaded it can make it harder to manage new information or juggle multiple tasks.

Minimize clutter  

Make sure your workspace isn’t too distracting. Separate similar items into groups.  Use colour coding and visual prompts to help organise information on reminder charts or visual diaries.

Visualise and prioritise tasks

Use a wall-planner that visually highlights appointments, deadlines and daily tasks. Use colour coding to prioritise tasks. Create a list of actions at the beginning and end of each day and mark priorities. Carryover lists to the following day.

Take regular breaks

When in hyperfocus mode it can be difficult to remember to take a break which can lead to burnout, and if atask is uninteresting, it can be difficult to complete. Try the Pomodoro method to improve concentration. Work for 10 minutes then take a  5-minute break and increase the time if appropriate.  

Break down overwhelming tasks

If a task feels too big to handle break it down into small parts using the Kan Ban Method where you can break down large tasks visually into small parts, on post-its. Remember to congratulate yourself as you move forward, however small it is.

Make it more interesting

Try to automate ‘boring’ tasks and choose some pleasure stuff after more tedious tasks.

Increase dopamine levels

Choose some music that helps you to focus. Take regular breaks, you could even try dancing around if you feel stuck and try again.

Reminders and alarms

Use timers and set alarms to remind yourself when your deadlines are. Put all tasks and appointments into an electronic diary as soon as you know about them. Set reminders before the deadlines rather than at the deadline itself.

See the bigger picture

Try and gain an understanding of how all the different aspects of work link together in a  project or assignment. If you work as part of a team understand how your work links with others.

Supportive software

There are various types of software and apps that can help with planning, organisation and processing.

For example, Mind-mapping software, such as Inspiration and Mind Genius may be useful to map out ideas and workflow effectively or using text-to-speech and speech-to-text software could help speed up the processing of large documents.

Setting various reminders and alarms on your phone can be useful too. For things such as appointments, it can work well to set a reminder for the day before, then an hour before, giving you time to plan if necessary.

Be kind to yourself

It is not surprising that these differences can often impact on other factors such as self-esteem, energy levels and base level stress. Gaining an understanding of ourselves and the reasons why we find some things more difficult can really help in the management of this.  

Some days will be harder, or you will feel less motivated, and that’s ok. Practice your strategies and remember to always be kind to yourself and find what works for you.  

Approved by ProblemShared clinician:
Ellie Greenhow

You may also like

How to pick your Right to Choose provider

Tips for making the best choice.

Right to Choose

What does a Right to Choose adult autism assessment look like?

Discover what to expect throughout your Right to Choose autism assessment.

Right to Choose
Text Link
Text Link
Text Link