Executive Dysfunction: Life Skills

Executive Function Difficulties in Adults
100 Ways to Help Your Clients Live Productive and Happy Lives
Stephanie Moulton Sarkis, PhD


This is an extensive list, and also not a complete listing of all the possible skills. I will attempt to cover the major ideas and topics. There is a link to additional information and a more detailed look at each item in each section. Please note that every individual is unique, so not every item may apply to everyone. Always consult with healthcare professionals for personalized advice, encouragement, accountability, and support. Some of the material is created with the assistance of Chat GPT and Bard, and the website administrator has reviewed and verified the information compiled by the AI/LLM for accuracy and evidence.



Pleasant Activities

  • Exercise:

    • Regular physical activity has been shown to reduce symptoms of ADHD. It helps stimulate the brain, improve mood, and provide a natural outlet for extra energy. It can also help individuals with ASD by reducing anxiety and promoting better sleep. Keep in mind, you should only expend an amount of energy and exertion you are capable and able of and consult with your primary care physician before starting any new physical activity regimen.
  • Mindfulness:

    • From a state of wise mind, the synthesis of emotion mind and rational mind; pay attention in the present moment with intention; internally observe, describe, and participate in your current experience, interaction, or activity, in a non-judgemental, one-mindful, and effective way. Mindful activities may include cleaning, organizing, walking, yoga, tai-chi, meditation, eating, relaxing, and breathing exercises. They are useful for both ADHD and ASD as they promote focus, self-regulation, and stress management.

  • Art and Creative Activities:

    • Painting, drawing, coloring, knitting, weaving, writing, or playing a musical instrument can be therapeutic. These activities can provide a non-verbal way to express emotions and improve fine motor skills.
  • Nature Activities:

    • Spending time in nature or gardening can help to reduce stress, improve mood, and provide a calming environment.
  • Animal Therapy:

    • Interacting with animals can provide emotional support and a calming influence.



Disability Accommodations

  • Time Management Tools:

    • People with ADHD may benefit from digital tools that help with organization and time management, such as computers, smart phones, organizers, planners, calendars, timers, alarms, and efficiency apps.
  • Environmental Modifications:

    • For individuals with ASD, this could include noise-cancelling headphones for noisy environments, or designated quiet spaces to reduce sensory overload. The Americans with Disabilities Act protects individuals who require special accomodations from landlords, schools, and/or employers.
  • Living Accomodations

    • Individuals with ADHD and Autism receive immeasurable benefit from service animals, emotional support animals, home health care workers, and household task support workers.
  • Work Accommodations:

    • Flexible work hours, task lists, breaks for movement or relaxation, or a quiet workspace can be beneficial for both ADHD and ASD individuals.
  • Academic Accommodations:

    • Ask for assistance applying for accomodations. Extended time for tests, priority for class registration, reduced course load without financial aid consequences, time outs with the clock stopped for breaks, a quiet testing location, instructions given in writing, course syllabi given to student prior to first day of class, or note-taking assistance such as smart pens, or recording devices can be helpful.
  • Specialty Software: 

    • Voice interpretation speech to text software/app; Symbol interpretation text to speech software/app; Visual/Audio enhancement for books, screens, audio books, etc.



Avoiding Sensory Overstimulation Skills

  • Taste/smell/oral:

    • Introduce new foods gradually and one at a time with a plan:
    • When eating out, ask if you can suggest/pick the restaurant or having a heads up about where you are going for dinner.
    • Crunchy snacks (carrots)
    • Drink beverages through a straw for increased oral proprioception
    • Facial massage techniques before eating a meal of a less desired texture
  • Movement:

    • Use a rocking chair/exercise ball to calm down
    • Limit the # of steps or instructions given when doing/learning new things
    • Be aware that places that are high up may be uncomfortable
    • Have strategies to help calm yourself down/distract you (music, fidgets, etc.)
    • Take regular breaks during physical activity
    • Incorporate routine and repetition in your movement activities
  • Visual:

    • Cover or block out information when reading
    • Periodically close your eyes (when safe) to reduce visual stimulation
    • Use dim/natural lighting – or darkness when applicable – paying attention to the brightness on TVs, computers and phones as well
    • Replace fluorescent lighting with light color more pleasant and less extreme
    • Reduce the amount of clutter in your space, minimize visual stimuli
    • Organize countertops, drawers, closets, etc.
    • Reduceg clutter in your environment to ensure that things are easily found to reduce frustration.
    • Place items that are used the most in easily accessible places and in one layer (no doom piles)
    • Wearing sunglasses outside, blue light glasses inside
  • Touch:

    • Wrap yourself in a blanket when you’re feeling overwhelmed.
    • Deep pressure rather than light – body pillows, hugs, foam rollers, massages, etc.
    • Use the polyvagal theory exercises for central nervous system regulation
    • Use a tactile stimulation device (block of wood covered in felt, laundry softener balls, etc.
    • Use a weighted blanket to help calm down, or a few heavy ones.
    • Wear clothing that you feel comfortable in – paying attention to tags, seams, fabric, texture, and fit.
    • Use body soap, dish soap, and laundry soap that is natural and hypoallergenic, no colors, perfumes, or dies.
    • Engage in tapping, somatics, yoga, or other tactile-integrative techniques for calming your central nervous system
  • Auditory:

    • Reduce the volume of background or extra auditory stimuli when required in order to focus
    • Maintain discussions in class or group sessions to help maintain focus
    • Do things that require high focus levels in a quiet space
    • Use white noise or calming music to help stay focused but can also be used as a calming strategy
    • Close the door to reduce noise
    • Use ear plugs or noise reduction headphones to reduce noise – both when focusing but also when out in busy areas
    • Provide handouts to others in order to supplement your verbal instructions
    • Use self-control and emotional regulation cues or mantras to stay focused – reading out loud, talking yourself through the problem.



Environmental Changes

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) are neurodevelopmental conditions that can influence how an individual interacts with and perceives their surroundings. As such, optimizing the environment can significantly enhance their overall functioning across various domains, including social, interpersonal, occupational, financial, emotional, mental, and physical aspects of life.

Environmental modifications should always be personalized, taking into consideration the unique traits, sensitivities, and preferences of the individual. The primary objective of these adaptations is to cultivate a supportive environment that minimizes stress and distraction while promoting comfort, productivity, and overall well-being.

While these environmental changes are a stepping stone to improve the overall functioning of individuals with ASD or ADHD, they should be implemented alongside appropriate therapeutic and medical interventions. Moreover, it’s crucial to involve the individual in decision-making processes to ensure the adaptations align with their preferences and needs. Ultimately, the goal is to create an inclusive environment that recognizes neurodiversity and supports everyone in living a fulfilling life.

Changes to the environment can make these social and interpersonal interactions more manageable:

  • Structured Social Spaces: Create clearly defined areas for social interaction, providing a safe and predictable space for engagement. This might involve arranging furniture to create ‘zones’ or using visual cues.
  • Minimizing Overstimulation: Individuals with ASD or ADHD may become overwhelmed in noisy, crowded environments. Opt for quiet, calm settings for social interactions.
  • Consistent Schedules: Regular social routines can decrease anxiety and improve interpersonal relationships. Having a predictable schedule for visits, outings, or other social engagements can help.

Workplaces can be adapted to better support individuals with ASD or ADHD:

  • Individualized Workspaces: A quiet, personalized workspace can minimize distractions and improve focus. Noise-canceling headphones can also be beneficial.
  • Visual Aids: Visual prompts like charts, diagrams, or calendars can be incredibly useful for individuals with ASD or ADHD in managing tasks and deadlines.
  • Frequent Breaks: Regular, short breaks can help manage energy levels and maintain concentration throughout the day.

Workplace accomodations you can implement on your own:

  • Ask for verbal instructions and requests to be sent to you in an email. This helps you keep track of assignments and requests, and it makes it less likely that you will forget to do something. It also helps you keep a “paper trail” in case a coworker or boss tells you they asked you to do something different.
  • If you work in a cubicle, wear noise-cancelling headphones or earbuds to block out distracting noise.
  • When scheduling your workday, allow extra time for meetings and other work events so you do not “overbook” yourself.
  • Spend some time in the morning just answering emails and returning phone calls.
  • Take frequent, short breaks during your workday, where you leave your desk and maybe even go outside for some fresh air.
  • Go outside and take a walk during your lunch break. It is important that you get outside and move around in order to “reset” your brain.
  • Break large projects into smaller tasks and assign a due date for each of these smaller tasks. You may need the help of a trusted coworker, friend, family member, or coach in order to do this.
  • Make sure you receive clear deadlines, and be aware of what is expected from you.
  • Shut off all notifications on your electronic devices.
  • Put up a “do not disturb” sign on your cubicle or office door when you really need to focus on a project. An alternative to this is to let people know ahead of time that you need some uninterrupted time.
  • Use an empty conference room or office with a door to work in when you really need tofocus.
  • Keep your hands busy during a meeting so you are better able to focus. This is called a “concentrated distraction.” One way to do this is by using a small textured object that no one else can see as you fiddle with it.
  • Continuously take notes during a meeting. This helps you stay focused and helps you better process what is going on at the meeting.
  • Ask for copies of the minutes (summary) from meetings.

Financial management environmental modifications can help:

  • Organized financial spaces: Designate a specific, clutter-free area for managing finances. This might be a particular room, desk, or even a section of a drawer.
  • Visual reminders: Use visual cues for bill payments and budgeting, such as a calendar with due dates or a color-coded budgeting system.
  • Digital tools: Use of online banking and budgeting apps can streamline financial management.

Creating a supportive environment can significantly benefit emotional and mental health:

  • Personal Sanctuary: Create a dedicated space where the individual can retreat when they’re feeling overwhelmed. This could include comfortable seating, favorite items, calming colors, or noise-cancelling devices.
  • Sensory Considerations: Ensure the environment respects sensory sensitivities. This may involve dimming harsh lighting, managing noise levels, or using unscented cleaning products.
  • Regular Outdoor Time: Access to nature can have a significant positive impact on mental health. Try to include green spaces in the environment.

Physical health can also be improved with environmental considerations:

  • Active spaces: Incorporate elements that encourage movement, like standing desks, exercise balls as chairs, or space for physical activities.
  • Clear pathways: Keep paths free of clutter to prevent accidents and facilitate movement, which can be particularly beneficial for those with motor coordination difficulties.
  • Nutrition accessibility: Ensure healthy food options are easily accessible and visually appealing.

Other changes:

  • Maintain a clutter-free environment:
    • Reduce visual stress. This reduces distractions, particularly for individuals with ADHD.
  • Pick up, tidy up, and/or organize for 15 minutes every night. Don’t do any deeper cleaning.
    • Set a timer and do as much as you can before the timer goes off and stop when the timer goes off.
  • Leave the room cleaner than you entered it.
    • Pick up as you go. Clean as you go. Avoids the piling up stress and anxiety of doom piles.
  • Sensory-friendly spaces: modifications to lighting, temperature, noise levels, or seating arrangements can help reduce sensory overload.
  • Organized spaces:
    • Having a specific place for each item can help people with ADHD or ASD keep track of their belongings.
    • Have a dumping station near your front door.
  • Avoiding stores or areas that are busy and crowded
  • Use calming strategies (meditation, fidgets) to help regulate before going to a busy environment if known in advance – “coping ahead” as a skill
  • Take frequent breaks throughout the day to sit in the dark with little stimuli to help calm down
  • Use theraputty, stress balls, squishies and other fidgets to help with calming and focus.
  • Limit large group gatherings, when possible, the smaller the group the better
  • Write out steps to a task and check them off as they are completed
    • Make a plan of execution including breaks before starting a task
    • Put materials in sequential order
  • Use GPS tracking devices on frequently lost items:
    • Use a point of performance as a reminder to take your keys, wallet, etc, when you need them. A designated space where you will see these items before leaving your work or home.
  • Use a digital door lock instead of keys.
  • Use organizers, planners, lists, reminders, calendars, etc. to stay organized:
    • Use post it notes or a journal to write down important tasks or notes.
  • Use clear storage bins, for closets, shelves, cabinets, refrigerator, freezer, etc.
  • Use a rolling file cart for important papers, or scan the copies and store them digitally.
  • Sort through belongings on a regular basis (ie, semi-annually or annually).
    • Use the 5 boxes technique. 1 fix it, 2 give it away, 3 keep it, 4 unsure yet, and 5 junk it.
  • Get auto-shut off appliances, coffee machines, toaster ovens, etc. Avoid using candles.
  • Manage routine and stay consistent in your schedule to reduce unnecessary stressors and improve motivation/mood, but ensuring that it has breaks and or downtime scheduled in to avoid overstimulation.



Practice Good Self-Care (Self-Compassion, Health, Wellness)

Sleep Hygiene

  • Keep the Same Wake and Bed Times Every Day
    • Your body can’t compensate for staying up late on weekends.
  • Have a Completely Dark Room
    • Consider getting curtains that block out sunlight.
  • Use Background Sound
    • Have relaxing music or a guided imagery recording.
  • Keep Your Bedroom Clutter-Free
    • Spend 15 minutes before bed picking up.
  • Only Use Your Bed for Sleep and Sex
    • Don’t do work, read, or eat in bed, as your brain will associate your bed with factors other than sleep, including stress.
  • Shut Off Backlit Devices an Hour Before Bed
    • Studies have found this helps you fall asleep more easily.
  • Get Enough Sleep
    • You need at least seven to nine hours of sleep per night.
  • Get a Sleep Lab Study
    • A study can help determine if you have sleep apnea, restless leg, and/or other sleep disorders. See your doctor.
  • Avoid Caffeine Before Bed
    • Caffeine is a stimulant and can keep you awake.
  • Practice Journaling
    • Write your concerns and worries out before bed, along with a list of things that went well that day.

Keep a Sleep Diary

Write down (or voice record) when you go to bed each night, and when you get up in the morning. Also record:

  • What time you took your medication that day (or evening).
  • What time you started getting ready for bed.
  • How much alcohol, if any, you drank that evening.
  • The temperature of the room.
  • The darkness of the room.
  • Your general health that day.
  • Your current stress level.
  • If you engaged in a relaxing activity before bed, or if you were using electronics up until you went to sleep.
  • What time you got in bed.
  • How long it took you to go to sleep.
  • If you woke up in the middle of the night and how long it took you to go back to sleep.

Just keeping track of your sleep habits can help you adjust your behavior so you are more likely to get a good night’s rest (Kira, Maddison, Hull, Blunden, and Olds, 2014). Take this “sleep log” to your doctor if you are continuing to have problems getting a good night’s rest. There are also devices (fit bit, apple watch, etc.) and apps that can help you track your sleep habits. Some apps are in a journal format, while others have you put your phone on the bed while you sleep, in order to track movement.



Diet and Nutrition Planning

Food is medicine for the body. The adage “you are what you eat” really is true. Individuals with executive dysfunction can have a complicated relationship with food. As you will read in this section, executive function difficulties can worsen obesity related issues, and lead to eating disorders and forgetting to eat regularly. Before starting any nutrition plan, you should check with their doctor. You should have already read about mindful eating, and might have already engaged in a mindful eating practice. In this section, you will learn even more about the importance of people with executive dysfunction learning healthy eating behaviors.


A healthy diet is one that is low in unhealthy fats, high in quality protein, high in carbohydrates, high in fatty acids, and high in mineral content (Woo et al., 2014). People with ADHD tend to have poorer nutrition and take in more calories than people without ADHD (van Egmond-Fröhlich, Weghuber, and de Zwaan, 2012). Food can be a form of self-medication for people with executive dysfunction. When you eat a food that is high in sugar, salt, or fat, it triggers a brain reaction that is the same as if you were abusing drugs (Davis, 2010).

Eating Disorders

Because eating disorders and addictive eating behaviors are more common among individuals with executive function, here’s a checklist your therapist will review to help determine if it is an issue for you.

  • Have you lost or gained an excessive amount of weight in the last six months?
  • Do you exhibit perfectionistic tendencies based on insecurity or inadequacy beliefs?
  • Do you have bruised or callused knuckles or fingers?
  • Have you started to experience a loss of hair?
  • Have you been hoarding food or hiding food?
  • Have you engaged in secretive eating behaviors?
  • Do you often make large quantities of high-fat foods for others?
  • Do you have an observed gaunt appearance?
  • Do you have a history of vomiting or purging behaviors?
  • Do you use an excessive amount of laxatives to lose weight?
  • Do you exercise more than 1 or 2 hours per day, on average, even after the point of exhaustion?
  • Do you stare at yourself in mirrors often enough that it is noticable to others?
  • Do you eat a large amount of food at one time, or eat more than you wanted, even after you were full?
  • Do you eat food (usually non-nutritious foods) to avoid or suppress emotions or pain?

If your therapist determines that you meet even one of these criteria, they will ask further questions to determine if you might meet the diagnostic criteria for an unspecified eating disorder, anorexic disorder, bulimic disorder, or binge eating disorder.

Tips for Healthy Eating and Nutrition Planning

Try the following tips for healthier eating – it can lead to better overall wellbeing.

  • Get your annual physical by a medical professional, including fasting blood labs, testing for nutritional deficiencies
  • Reduce use of refined sugars
  • Cut out trans fats
  • Increase consumption of water
  • Increase consumption of probiotics
  • Take a multi-vitamin and helpful natural dietary supplements (especially if you have limited access to whole foods)
  • Avoid drinking any sodas, including diet sodas and energy drinks
  • Avoid drinking high-sugar fruit juices
  • Eat more fresh food and less processed food
  • Practice mindful eating, slow, intentional, paying attention to the joy and pleasure of eating delicious and nutritious foods.
  • Learn proper portion sizes and practice portion control
  • Avoid skipping meals
  • Eat several smaller meals during the day rather than three larger meals
  • Do not eat off anyone’s plate, including your kid’s plate
  • Avoid fad diets, especially ones promoted on social media by people who are not experts with proper credentials and education.
  • Determine through experimentation, food sensitivities, reactions, allergies: implement an abstinence plan for those foods, under the guidance of a nutritional health care professional.
    • For example: strawberries, peanuts, dairy products, gluten products, coffee, garlic, onions, nightshades, etc.



Movement and Exercise

Types of Exercise

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2012) advises that daily exercise should be a combination of mostly aerobic activity of moderate or vigorous intensity (at least breaking a light sweat), as well as muscle- and bone-strengthening exercises.


Aerobic exercises increase heart rate and the amount of oxygen a person uses. Examples of aerobic activities include jogging, swimming, cycling, and walking.


Muscle-strengthening exercises are those where the body, weights, or other resistance is moved against gravity (National Osteoporosis Foundation, 2014). Muscle-strengthening exercises include lifting weights, using exercise bands, and doing push-ups.


Bone-strengthening exercises are ones in which a person stays upright and moves against gravity (National Osteoporosis Foundation, 2014). Bone-strengthening exercises include jumping rope, tennis, and fast walking.


How to Begin a Fitness Program

If exercise hasn’t been part of your daily routine, getting started can be a challenge. Here are some guidelines to help you.

  • Have a varied exercise plan to keep up your interest.
  • Do activities that are within your ability level. Overexertion can lead to sports injuries.
  • Find an exercise partner. You are more likely to stick with a fitness program if you have another person motivating you. There are apps and websites that can match you up with people by location, ability level, schedule, and preferred activities.
  • Exercise first thing in the morning to get the maximum benefits of increased brain chemicals.
  • Start low and go slow. Even exercising for 20 minutes helps raise brain chemical levels, and 30 minutes of exercise improves your brain’s executive functions.
  • Talk to your doctor before starting any fitness program.


Planning your Program

Plan with the following in mind: people with executive dysfunction tend to like exercise programs where there is/are:

  • Variety
  • Social contact
  • Structure (a class that meets every Wednesday night at 6 p.m.)
  • No “right” way to do the exercise (proper form is not emphasized)
  • Limited or no rules to the exercise
  • No need to keep score
  • No special equipment needed
  • Easy-to-do movements
  • A limited amount of time to exercise
  • An instructor who gives positive feedback
  • A reward system (points you earn per activity)

Simplicity and accessibility is key.

People with EF difficulties tend to like the following forms of exercise, both recreationally and competitively:

  • Swimming
  • Walking
  • Running
  • Dancing
  • Cycling
  • Martial Arts
  • Yoga

The Importance of Being Outside

Studies have found that being outside while being active can help improve executive dysfunction. For example, a study by Taylor and Kuo (2009) found that children with ADHD exhibited a greater reduction of symptoms when they were allowed to be active outside instead of staying in the classroom. People with EF difficulties will describe their time outside as “resetting” their brains. They also have described the sensation as their “brain slowing down to match the pace of nature.” When people are engaged in “play” outside, their voluntary attention turns off and their involuntary attention kicks in.

Voluntary attention is the focus you use to read something at work – you make a concentrated effort to absorb the material. This voluntary attention is an area where individuals with executive dysfunction expend a lot of energy – and it makes their brains very tired. Involuntary attention is what your brain does when you are just enjoying yourself and are not focused on any outcomes. In other words, turning on involuntary attention helps your brain rest for a while. As you read earlier in the chapter, it is important that people with executive dysfunction take a walk outside during their work breaks; even exercising for 15 to 20 minutes can help improve executive function performance.



Therapeutic Interventions

Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) are neurodevelopmental disorders that may impact various aspects of an individual’s life. Therapeutic interventions play a vital role in managing these conditions and promoting better quality of life. This article will explore several evidence-based therapies for ADHD and ASD, outlining specific, achievable, measurable, relevant, and time-bound (SMART) objectives for each intervention.

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

CBT is a widely recognized approach used to treat ADHD and ASD. It aims to modify thought patterns, helping individuals manage their symptoms and cope with daily challenges. CBT can help individuals with ADHD or ASD understand their thoughts and feelings, improve problem-solving skills, and manage their behaviors.

Objective: Over the a course of a minimum 12-16 weeks, the client will learn to identify and replace negative thought patterns contributing to anxiety or disruptive behaviors, as measured by self-reporting and therapist observations.

Techniques: CBT therapists employ a variety of strategies, such as cognitive restructuring (changing negative thought patterns), behavior modification (rewarding desired behavior), mindfulness (promoting present-moment awareness), and problem-solving skills.

Theory: You experience an event, which triggers emotions and sensations, or feelings, then you have a thought or belief about that event, an interpretation based on your feelings and perspective determined by past similar experiences. This leads to a consequence, or result. In CBT, you focus on changing the faulty “belief” part of this process. For example, one day on the way to work you step in a mud puddle. You say to yourself, “I can’t believe I was so stupid. Everyone is going to laugh at me at the office.” You end up being more emotionally reactive to other experiences and have a bad day. Let’s improve that belief process. You step in a mud puddle on your way to work. You say to yourself, “Oh well, this is not the end of the world, this happens to me and others sometimes. I’ll have a good story for my coworkers.” You end up laughing about the puddle, you are less reactive to other experiences, and you have a pretty good day. CBT helps change the unhelpful (and even detrimental) beliefs into ones which result in happier and healthier choices.

Please visit the cognitive distortion page in the daily routine feature. Here is the link:

cognitive distortions

Thought Stopping

Sometimes when you are presented with a new task or responsibility, you may have thoughts of “I can’t do this,” “I always procrastinate,” “I’m dumb,” or “I never get anything done.” When you have a negative thought, close your eyes if you can, and visualize a stop sign popping up. Now replace that thought with a positive one. This new skill takes practice when you are not accustomed to doing this. You are allowed to struggle, and you are allowed to be patient with yourself. Replace “I can’t do this” with “I am smart and capable.” Here is the process of “thought-stopping” broken into steps:

  1. Recognize the negative thought. Become aware that you are being tough on yourself and that it is not helpful or healthy.
  2. Visualize a red stop sign popping up and blocking that negative thought. You can also say to yourself, “Stop,” “That’s negative, change that,” “That is not healthy or helpful,” or any other phrase that acknowledges the negative thought and reminds you to stay positive and in the present.
  3. Create a positive phrase to replace the negative one. For example, if you are meeting a new group of people, turn the negative thought of “They’re going to think I’m weird” into the positive thought of “I’m confident, have good social skills, and I’ll enjoy meeting these new people.” Keep in mind that you want to avoid using “not” in the positive phrase. Turn it around into something more positive. For example, “I’m not going to screw this up” can be rephrased into “I’m going to do just fine.”

The more you practice replacing your negative thoughts with positive ones, the more likely your mind will automatically go to a positive thought.

Identifying Negative Thoughts

If you’re not sure if your self-talk is negative, ask yourself the following questions about your thoughts, using the acronym THINK:

  • Is it Thoughtful?
  • Is it Helpful?
  • Is it Inspirational
  • Is it Necessary
  • Is it Kind

If you can’t answer “yes” to one or more of these questions, you may have a negative thought on your hands. Time to practice some positive thought replacement and reframing. The THINK questions are also helpful to run through when you are communicating in a relationship and want to watch what you say. In an interpersonal interaction, the necessary part can be broken down into two distinct questions: does it need to be said, and does it need to be me that says it?


In CBT, reframing involves taking a cognitive distortion and turning it into a positive thought. If you don’t know the reason for something, why not create a reason that is in your favor instead of having it work against you?

Staying Away from Absolutes

In general, it helps to stay away from using words such as “always” and “never” in self-talk or when talking to others. Usually a discussion with a partner where “always” and “never” are involved doesn’t end well. For example, “You always interrupt me,” or “You never take the trash out.” Very rarely in life are things absolute, all or nothing – they are shades of gray. Cutting out all-or-nothing words (along with all-or-nothing thinking) can help your client feel more at ease with themselves and with others.

Social Skills Training (SST)

Many individuals with ASD or ADHD may struggle with social interactions. SST can help them develop the necessary skills for successful communication and interaction. This can help both individuals with ADHD and ASD navigate social situations, understand social cues, and build relationships.

Parent-Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT)

PCIT is an evidence-based approach that can be particularly effective for children with ADHD, working on enhancing parent-child relationships and promoting positive behaviors.

Mindfulness-Based Therapies

Mindfulness-based interventions can be beneficial for individuals with ADHD or ASD by enhancing focus, reducing anxiety, and promoting emotional regulation.


While not a therapy in itself, medication is often a crucial component of a comprehensive treatment plan for individuals with ADHD and, in some cases, ASD. It’s most effective when combined with other therapeutic interventions.

Occupational Therapy

This can help individuals develop the skills they need for daily life, such as fine motor skills, self-care skills, or job-related skills.

Speech-Language Therapy

For individuals with ASD, this can improve communication skills, social interaction, and voice regulation.


Therapeutic interventions for ASD and ADHD are diverse and should be tailored to the unique needs and circumstances of each individual. It’s important for therapists to set SMART objectives for treatment and regularly monitor progress. Additionally, therapists should collaborate with clients (and their families, where appropriate) to ensure interventions align with their goals and preferences. With the right support, individuals with ADHD and ASD can manage their symptoms, improve their skills, and enjoy a better quality of life.



Applied Behavior Analysis in Counseling:

Understanding the Approach and Addressing Controversies



As a mental health counselor, it is crucial that I explore various therapeutic approaches to best meet the unique needs of my clients. One such approach that has gained attention and sparked controversy is Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). ABA is primarily known for its effectiveness in addressing behavioral challenges, particularly in individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). However, it is essential to delve deeper into the pros and cons of ABA and address the misconceptions and controversies surrounding its implementation.

Understanding Applied Behavior Analysis:

Applied Behavior Analysis is a therapeutic approach that focuses on modifying behavior through systematic and data-driven techniques. ABA aims to understand the relationship between an individual’s behavior and the environment in which it occurs, with an emphasis on increasing desirable behaviors and reducing unwanted ones (Smith, 2001). By utilizing evidence-based practices, ABA can be effective in shaping behaviors, teaching new skills, and improving overall quality of life. ABA is grounded in the principles of behaviorism and utilizes evidence-based techniques to promote positive behavior change.

The basic premises of ABA include:

1. Behavior is learned: ABA recognizes that behavior is learned and influenced by environmental factors. By understanding the antecedents (events or stimuli preceding the behavior) and consequences (the outcomes or events that follow the behavior), ABA seeks to identify the patterns that maintain and reinforce behavior.

2. Focus on observable behavior: ABA primarily focuses on observable and measurable behavior. It emphasizes breaking down complex behaviors into smaller, manageable components to facilitate analysis and intervention.

3. Individualized treatment: ABA recognizes that each individual is unique, and interventions should be tailored to meet their specific needs. It involves conducting thorough assessments to identify the target behaviors and developing individualized treatment plans accordingly.

4. Use of systematic data collection and analysis: ABA relies on systematic data collection to monitor and evaluate behavior change. Data collection methods, such as direct observation, allow practitioners to track progress, make informed decisions, and modify interventions as needed.

Some common techniques used in ABA therapy include:

1. Positive reinforcement: Positive reinforcement involves providing rewards or preferred stimuli immediately following a desired behavior, which increases the likelihood of that behavior occurring again in the future. Reinforcement can be in the form of praise, tokens, treats, or access to preferred activities.

2. Prompting and fading: Prompting involves providing cues or assistance to help individuals perform a desired behavior. Prompting can be physical (hand-over-hand guidance), verbal (providing verbal cues or instructions), or gestural (pointing or signaling). Over time, prompts are systematically faded to promote independence.

3. Shaping: Shaping involves reinforcing successive approximations of a target behavior. It involves reinforcing behaviors that are closer and closer to the desired behavior until the target behavior is achieved. This technique is particularly useful for teaching complex skills by breaking them down into manageable steps.

4. Task analysis: Task analysis involves breaking down a complex behavior or skill into smaller, sequential steps. Each step is taught individually, and once mastered, the steps are systematically chained together to achieve the desired behavior or skill.

5. Extinction: Extinction involves withholding reinforcement for a previously reinforced behavior. By removing the reinforcement, the frequency and strength of the behavior decrease over time. Extinction is used when it is determined that a behavior is maintained by attention or other types of reinforcement that need to be reduced or eliminated.

6. Functional communication training: This technique focuses on teaching individuals alternative, more appropriate ways to communicate their needs and desires, particularly for those with limited verbal skills. It involves teaching functional communication strategies, such as using picture cards, sign language, or assistive communication devices.

These are just a few examples of the techniques used in ABA therapy. ABA practitioners carefully select and customize interventions based on individual needs, preferences, and goals, with the ultimate aim of promoting positive behavior change and improving overall quality of life.

Controversies Surrounding ABA:

Despite its effectiveness in addressing specific behavioral challenges, ABA has faced criticism and controversies. Some concerns raised by critics include:

1. Overemphasis on compliance: One common criticism of ABA is the potential for an excessive focus on compliance, which can neglect individual autonomy and self-expression (Kupferstein, 2018). Critics argue that this approach may prioritize conformity over the emotional well-being and personal preferences of the individual.

2. Lack of generalization: Another controversy revolves around the limited generalization of skills learned through ABA interventions. Critics argue that skills acquired in a structured ABA setting may not transfer to real-life situations or other environments, hindering the individual’s overall independence and adaptability (Higgins et al., 2017).

3. Ethical concerns: Critics have raised ethical concerns regarding the use of aversive techniques and punishment in some ABA interventions. The use of punishment-based procedures, such as withholding rewards or administering aversive consequences, can be seen as coercive and potentially harmful (Miltenberger, 2008).

Benefits of ABA:

Despite the controversies, ABA has several strengths and benefits that have contributed to its widespread use in the field of counseling:

1. Evidence-based approach: ABA is grounded in empirical research and relies on data-driven decision-making. Its emphasis on measurement, observation, and systematic intervention makes it a well-established and reliable therapeutic approach (Heward, 2013).

2. Individualized treatment plans: ABA recognizes the importance of tailoring interventions to individual needs. By conducting thorough assessments, ABA practitioners can develop personalized treatment plans that address specific behaviors and goals (Simpson & Reed, 2016).

3. Skill acquisition and behavior modification: ABA techniques have demonstrated success in teaching functional skills and modifying challenging behaviors in individuals with ASD and other developmental disorders (Smith, 2001). It can be effective in promoting social interaction, communication, and adaptive behaviors.

Addressing Misconceptions and Misinformation:

Misconceptions and misinformation surrounding ABA can lead to misunderstandings and skepticism. It is crucial to clarify these misconceptions:

1. ABA is not solely for individuals with ASD: While ABA gained recognition for its effectiveness in working with individuals with ASD, it is also applicable to various populations, such as those with intellectual disabilities, ADHD, and behavioral disorders (Dixon et al., 2019).

2. Person-centered approach: ABA can be implemented with a person-centered focus, emphasizing collaboration, autonomy, and individual preferences. The best ABA practices prioritize the well-being and dignity of the client while targeting behavioral goals (Kupferstein, 2018).

3. Expanding beyond behavior modification: ABA is not solely focused on behavior modification but also aims to enhance the quality of life for individuals. It can address social skills, communication, self-care, and other domains that promote overall well-being (Higgins et al., 2017).


Applied Behavior Analysis has demonstrated its effectiveness in addressing behavioral challenges and promoting skill development in various populations. While controversies and concerns exist, understanding the pros and cons of ABA is essential to make informed decisions about its application. By addressing the controversies, acknowledging the strengths, and dispelling misconceptions, mental health counselors can utilize ABA as one of the tools in their therapeutic toolkit to support their clients’ well-being and growth. Due to the controversy and concerns raised by the Neurodivergent community, surrounding some of the aversive techniques and the ethics of some of the evidence provided for its effectiveness, I do not endorse or condemn the approach, and instead focus on providing information about it so individuals can make an informed decision about utilizing it as an approach in their treatment.


1. Dixon, D. R., Burns, C. O., Granpeesheh, D., Amarasinghe, R., Powell, A., Linstead, E., … & Adams, H. (2019). A comprehensive examination of early intensive behavioral intervention for children with autism. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 67, 101413.

2. Higgins, W., Luczynski, K. C., Carroll, R., & Fisher, W. (2017). Generalization of behavioral skills: An empirical evaluation of intervention effectiveness for children with autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 47(2), 430-439.

3. Heward, W. L. (2013). Exceptional children: An introduction to special education. Pearson Education.

4. Kupferstein, H. (2018). Evidence of increased PTSD symptoms in autistics exposed to applied behavior analysis. Advances in Autism, 4(1), 19-29.

5. Miltenberger, R. G. (2008). Behavior modification: Principles and procedures. Cengage Learning.

6. Simpson, R. L., & Reed, D. D. (2016). Implementing applied behavior analysis strategies in early childhood education and care settings. In Handbook of Early Childhood Special Education (pp. 159-174). Springer.

7. Smith, T. (2001). Discrete trial training in the treatment of autism. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 16(2), 86-92.



Coping Skills

  • Stress Management Techniques: Techniques like deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and mindfulness meditation can help manage stress and anxiety.
  • Self-Monitoring: This can help individuals become aware of their behaviors, emotions, or triggers and respond appropriately.
  • Problem-Solving Skills: Learning to identify a problem, generate solutions, and evaluate the outcomes can be beneficial.
  • DBT Mindfulness Skills: Wise Mind; What Skills; How Skills; Meditation; Loving Kindness
  • DBT Distress Tolerance Skills: TIPP; Opposite to Emotion; Radical Acceptance
  • DBT Emotion Regulations Skills: ACCEPTS; STOP, IMPROVE
  • DBT Interpersonal Effectiveness Skills: DEAR MAN; GIVE



Life Skills

  • Financial Management: Learning to budget, manage bills, and save money is crucial for independent living.
  • Self-Care Skills: This includes personal hygiene, healthy eating, sleep management, and regular exercise.
  • Time Management: Skills like scheduling, prioritizing, and task management can help individuals stay organized.
  • Nutritional Planning: Eating fresh, natural, whole healthy foods, avoiding sugars, sweeteners, and salt, avoiding ultra-processed foods.
  • Physical Activity: Exercise, stretching, yoga, tai chi, martial arts, walking, hiking, jogging, swimming, sports.



Relationship Skills

  • Communication Skills: Effective communication can improve relationships and decrease misunderstandings.
  • Empathy and Perspective-Taking: Understanding others’ feelings and viewpoints can help build stronger relationships.
  • Love Maps: A deep knowledge of your partner’s personality, history, stressors, fears, hopes, dreams, and values.
  • Connection Rituals: The daily habits of connecting at a deeper level of surface communication, involving touch, closeness, and emotional intimacy.
  • Turning Towards: The practice of supportive, encouraging, and validating teamwork and cooperative collaboration. Looking into each other’s eyes with affection, respect, and admiration.
  • Conflict Resolution: Learning to manage disagreements in a healthy way can prevent relationship damage.



Social Skills

  • Understanding Social Cues: This includes recognizing body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice.
  • Conversation Skills: Learning to start, maintain, and end a conversation appropriately can help improve social interactions.
  • Assertiveness: This involves expressing oneself in a respectful manner, even when disagreeing with others.
  • Reality Acceptance:
  • Experience Sensations:



Occupational Skills

  • Strengths and Values Exploration:
  • Abilities and Skills Assessments:
  • Job-Searching Skills: This includes writing a resume, interviewing, and understanding job market trends.
  • Workplace Etiquette: Learning appropriate behavior in a work environment can help maintain a positive workplace environment.
  • Task Management: This involves prioritizing tasks, staying organized, and meeting deadlines, which are critical skills in many jobs.

Remember, individual needs can vary greatly, and what works well for one person may not work as well for another. It’s crucial to work with a professional to develop a personalized approach.



Be Active at Work

When an individual has executive dysfunction, sitting at a desk all day at work is like torture. Individuals with executive function difficulties need to move around while they work. When you move around, you are stimulating a part of the brain called the cerebellum. This part of the brain helps with movement and balance. When your cerebellum is stimulated, your frontal lobes – the home of the executive functions – are better able to focus. This process of moving to help you focus is called concentrated distraction. There is also an added benefit to moving while you are at work – if you are active before and after learning something new, your brain is more likely to hold on to that information (Mavilidi, Okely, Chandler, and Paas, 2016).

Here are ways to incorporate movement into your workday:

  • Sit on a large stability ball while you’re at your desk, or get a chair that incorporates a stability ball.
  • Sit on a chair that requires movement and balance in order to stay seated.
  • Use a “stand-up” desk. There are desks that can be moved to a standing position with the press of a button.
  • Get bicycle pedals that fit under the desk. These are not visible to someone walking by, and they are silent.
  • Walk outside during breaks. Movement and being outside help “reset” the brain.
  • Take regular breaks to walk to the restroom.

Additional tips:

  • Take the stairs instead of the elevator.
  • Park further away from the office.
  • Take a walk during lunch hour.
  • Have a “fidget” object that can be fiddled with while working.
  • Have a notepad to doodle on during meetings
  • Stand up in the back of the room during meetings, if possible.
  • Find a job that incorporates movement as part of the workday.