Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is characterised by deficits in executive functioning, leading to challenges with cognitive flexibility, planning, working memory, emotional control and response inhibition (Panerai et al., 2014). The excitation/inhibition hypothesis suggests that an imbalance in neural excitation and inhibition in the brain’s circuitry drives these executive function challenges (Barrasso-Catanzaro & Eslinger, 2016). For some individuals, they consider these challenges as the most difficult aspect of their ASD.
The presentation of ASD is dependent on co-morbid traits, learning difficulties and age (Happe et al., 2006). In adolescents, the primary issue is not always social and communication challenges. They participate socially and make good efforts to try to communicate; however, they face difficulties managing their emotions, their time and being organised at school and home. Further challenges with cognitive flexibility often present as being upset by unexpected change, for example, not being able to fulfil their usual morning routine or transitioning between break and lesson times at school. As they progress into late adolescence and adulthood, this can cross into challenges with finances, relationships and finding and maintaining employment.
We are working with a state boarding and day school for 11-19-year-olds with a high percentage of students with ASD to integrate a structured executive function coaching programme into their after-school executive function club, with the aim of improving students’ personal and academic outcomes and overall experience in education.
In collaboration with the school, we have received funding from the Sheila Coates Foundation through their Rapid Response Fund. We plan to use this funding to train staff members as executive function coaches to deliver small group coaching to a targeted group of ASD pupils to facilitate executive function strategy use. We will also be working with the students to create resources such as executive function strategy cards so that the impact of this work continues after direct project delivery ends. In addition to this targeted work, developing an awareness of the link between executive functioning and ASD across the whole school is essential for long-term implementation and success; therefore, we will also be facilitating an INSET training that will focus on executive functions and the challenges that current ASD students are experiencing at the school.
The evaluation will consist of semi-structured interviews and pre- and post-intervention questionnaire data. Our findings will be shared in early Summer 2024.