Executive Functioning Challenges with Task Initiation: Resources to Help Teach Life Skills

Executive Functioning Challenges with Task Initiation: Resources to Help Teach Life Skills

Inside: Does your autistic teen or young adult struggle with starting a skill? Learn strategies and resources to help with task initiation.

Your autistic teen or young adult has to get ready in the morning to get out the door by a certain time and it is always chaotic. You feel like you are always having to tell them what to do to get out the door.

You have asked your autistic teen to take a shower 10 times today and they still haven't started

You start to think to yourself, are they lazy?

Are they not motivated to do these activities?

I want to help you change your thoughts on how you view your autistic teen or young adult doing activities of daily living or every day life skills.

I want to help you get to the root of the problem of why they may be having difficulty with everyday life skills and how you can support them. This starts with learning about executive function skills. This post will specifically look at task initiation.

*This post contains affiliate links. There is no extra cost to you, but if you purchase through our link we will receive a commission. 

Brain Image for Task Initiation

What is task initiation?

Task initiation is the ability to start a new task. This can include being able to start a task they don't want to do. This could be anything from getting ready for the day, to completing homework, to doing a chore. Difficulty with starting a task can make productivity a challenge.

Executive Function

Executive functions are a broad group of cognitive skills that can impact how you function with everyday tasks. These cognitive skills include: impulse control, emotional control, flexible thinking, working memory, self-monitoring, planing and prioritizing, task initiation, and organization. Today will will focus on the cognitive skill of task initiation.

Task Initiation and Autism

Task initiation is one of the core 8 executive functioning skills. What does this mean for autism and executive function skills? When researching executive function skills and autism, I came across this really interesting research by Dr. Gordon and I learned about it from his conversation with Learn Play Thrive on their podcast. You can check out the episode and transcript here. What I learned from this episode was that executive function appears differently neurologically for autistic people. They are using cognitive control networks differently.

Autistic Inertia

Autistic inertia was first introduced to me in this blog post by Speaking of Autism.

They​ go on to first explain inertia in physics, which is the tendency that objects have to either continue moving (if they are already moving) or continue staying still. An object in motion stays in motion an object at rest stays at rest, unless acted upon by an outside force.

So if that is inertia, what is autistic inertia? It is the tendency that autistic people have to want to remain in a constant state. When they are asleep, they want to stay asleep. Whey they are awake they want to stay awake. When they are working on one thing, they want to stay working on that one thing. They go on to say that this can exist in everybody, but it is more pronounced in autistic people.

As I furthered researched autistic inertia I came across this recent research study conducted by an autistic researcher. You can check out the research study: “No Way Out Except from External Intervention”: First-Hand Accounts of Autistic Inertia Here.

 “Participants described difficulty starting, stopping and changing activities that was not within their conscious control. While difficulty with planning was common, a subset of participants described a profound impairment in initiating even simple actions more suggestive of a movement disorder. Prompting and compatible activity in the environment promoted action, while mental health difficulties and stress exacerbated difficulties. Inertia had pervasive effects on participants’ day-to-day activities and wellbeing.” (Buckle et al., 2021)

The research further details how this relates to task initiation. “Initiation impairments were often related to the height of the cognitive threshold to overcome, so it was more difficult to get out of bed than to pick up a phone, and complicated activities such as leaving the house were especially difficult. Having another person provide all necessary information or start off the task lowered the initiation threshold, thereby facilitating action.” (Buckle et al., 2021)

Examples of task initiation with life skills

When looking at task initiation, you will want to look at how they start doing a skill. You can take a look at what types of prompts they need to get started or if they are able to start a skill on their own. Here are some examples of starting different life skills during the day.

  • When the alarm goes off for the day they are able to start to get ready by going to the bathroom and changing their clothes.
  • Cleaning their room when it is dirty and knowing where to start with cleaning their room.
  • They are able to make a simple meal or get food when they are feeling hungry.
  • They are able to look at the weather outside and start by picking out clothing to wear for their day.
  • They notice their hands are dirty and are able to start the task of washing their hands.
  • They look at a checklist of work tasks and they are able to start with the first task.
  • They are able to start their homework assignment after directions are given.
Teen boy Frustrated by task initiation

Indicators of difficulty with task initiation/or possible signs of challenges

Individuals who struggle with task initiation may need many reminders from adults to start a task and they may delay doing an activity or rush to do it at the last minute.

What this could look like with life skills:

  • You asked your teen to take a shower, but they are refusing to take a shower (this could be because of task initiation, but it could also be because of sensory processing challenges) If you are needing help with teaching taking a shower you can check out this resource here.
  • They may have difficulty starting on cleaning up a mess or cleaning their room.
  • They may have difficulty getting ready for the day and picking out clothing items.
  • They may not know what activity to do first when getting ready in the morning and trying to leave the house.

I want to take a moment to acknowledge that some adults working with autistic teens and young adults may view these difficulties as being lazy or not motivated to do the skill.

The most important thing to remember is that executive functioning struggles absolutely do not represent laziness. Difficulty with starting a task is a real cognitive block and really does impact their ability to complete a skill.

How do I evaluate task initiation skills?

Here are some ways that you can evaluate an individuals task initiation skills.

  • Complete an observation of various life skills. Ask them to complete some simple life skills or skills you know they are having difficulty with and pay attention to how much prompting or help you need to give them. Are they able to get started on their own or what strategies do you need to help them with to get started?
  • Here are a couple questions to ask yourself when you are working with them:
    • Do they struggle with procrastination?
    • Are they able to start a task right away or do they need help?
    • Do they need visuals or reminders to help them get started?

If you are noticing that they are struggling in these areas you can reach out to their support networks. This could include their teachers, occupational therapist, speech therapist, psychologist, and or doctor. You could also reach out to them to ask for a professional evaluation.

Light bulb for task initiation strategies

Strategies to help with task initiation

There are a variety of strategies you can use to help with task initiation. You may have to try out different ones for the person and skill you are working on.


When looking at strategies to help with task initiation I wanted to go back to the research study by Buckle, et al. They found that, “prompting from another person in their presence was the most helpful intervention. Even having someone working nearby without interacting was often helpful. Participants also found it easier to do anything where another person was depending or counting on them, even from a distance, and most difficult to do something only for themselves.” (Buckle et al., 2021)

Prompting is giving a prompt in some form as a way of helping someone move onto another task. This could be anything from:

  • a person verbally telling you what to do
  • someone handing you something to get you started
  • writing the step out for you or looking at a checklist with the steps written out
  • or you hearing an alarm go off to get you started.

It can be helpful to have a specific support person be designated to help the individual get started on something new to help them feel grounded and safe that it is okay to get started on something new.

Break Skills Down Into Small Steps or Task analysis

“Several participants had developed personal techniques to reduce the pressure of expectation. For example, by telling themselves all you have to do is…” one tiny step, they could circumvent the sense of pressure and demands that could cause them to get stuck.” (Buckle et al., 2021).

Break a skill down into small manageable steps for them to see what to do and what is expected of them. If they can clearly see what the first step is going to be this can make it easier to get started.

A formal term for this can be task analysis. This is when you break a task down into smaller steps.

If you are wanting more help with breaking a skill down into smaller steps I have some solutions for you. First if you are having difficulty with teaching personal hygiene skills I have created an ebook bundle just for you. I break the skills down for you with written checklists and more. You can check out the Teaching Personal Hygiene Cares with Task Analysis: A Step by Step Guide Here!


I also listened to an interview with Oswin and Meg from Learn Play Thrive, where Oswin who is an autistic adult spoke about some strategies that worked for him and the autistic clients he works with. You can listen to the podcast episode or read the transcript here.

He said that he uses visuals for a variety things during his day. He uses them at his work at his computer, in his home for doing chores, and in his kitchen for meal planning.

Types of Visuals

  • Written word of the step or task
  • black and white picture of the step
  • colored picture of the step
  • real life picture of the step
  • PEC pictures of the step
  • the actual object that you need to use to complete the step

Wait Times

Another strategy that Oswin stated was giving a person wait times. Meaning giving them enough time so that their mind can go ahead and start shifting and with enough wait time those planning steps can start to happen.

Timers or Visual Timers

Oswin also said that he uses timers to help him when he can't have an external person there to help him initiate or prompt him on a task. You can use a visual timer like this one here or a timer on your phone.

A visual timer displays how much time is left on it so it can be very helpful with someone who may need a visual as to when the task will be done. This allows them to better see a start and a stop time. Someone may have difficulty starting a task because they don't understand when they could be done. We all want to be able to see an end result when we are working on something. So using a visual timer can be a way to give a concrete end to something.

Help them see the end of the task

Sometimes they may not want to get started because they don't understand when they will be done or they can't visualize the end of the task. If you can help them see when the task is done this could also help them get started on the task. You can do this by using a visual timer, writing the steps out or using visuals of the steps, or showing them the end result with a model.


Written checklists can be a great strategy to break the skill down into smaller steps, but also to write out the different tasks they need to get done as part of a routine. For example for a morning routine you could write down the big tasks that need to get done such as: go to the bathroom, wash face, brush teeth, get dressed, eat breakfast as an example.

I have included a free checklist PDF that you can print off and write down the tasks or the steps for a task that make sense for your situation. You can get these free blank checklist forms by joining the email list and becoming a member of the Learning for a Purpose community. Just enter your best email address below!

Blank Checklist freebie image for Task initiation blog post

Resources and further reading

If you are wanting to learn more about task initiation and look at further research and strategies for autistic teens and young adults you can check out these resources.

Books to check out


Buckle KL, Leadbitter K, Poliakoff E and Gowen E (2021) “No Way Out Except From External Intervention”: First-Hand Accounts of Autistic Inertia. Front. Psychol. 12:631596. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2021.631596

Executive Function Challenges with Task Initiation Pinterest Image
Autism and Organizational Skills: Helpful Teaching Tips, Strategies, and Resources

Autism and Organizational Skills: Helpful Teaching Tips, Strategies, and Resources

Learn about autism and organizational skills with teaching tips and helpful resources to help autistic teens become more organized.

*Affiliate Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links, which means that I receive a small commission, at no extra cost to you, if you make a purchase using this link. 

* On this site I am working on using language that represents the autistic community and what I have learned is that they prefer to use the term autistic instead of person with autism. I am working on making those changes on the site and there may be differences based on what I have been able to update.

Information about Autism and Organizational Skills

 How to Help Autistic Teens Become More Organized

This is a question I hear from my readers and on the internet a lot. Do you have any tips on how I can help my teen become more organized? He is constantly losing his homework and his room is so messy. He doesn’t know how to find things in his bedroom and always needs my help. Is there any way that I can help him become more organized to find things on his own??

I decided I wanted to look more into these questions and see what information I could find as it relates to autism and organizational strategies. I am not an expert in this area, but I wanted to share with you resources and information I found while looking up information about organization and executive function skills. I know these skills have a huge impact on their everyday life skills. I did my best to find helpful tips and strategies as well as include tips and advice from autistic adults.

Why Organization can be Difficult to Learn for Autistic Teens

Some autistic individuals may have difficulty with cognitive function skills. They may have difficulty with processing information, problem-solving, coming up with solutions, and predicting consequences of an action. They can have difficulty thinking ahead to the future, so if you tell them a date or time to remember in the future, they may have difficulty remembering it. They may also have difficulty understanding the concept of time. If your teen is struggling with any of these areas, they may also have difficulty with organizational skills. 

It is important to note, that not all autistic individuals will struggle with executive function and organizational skills. 

What is Executive Function?

Executive Functions are a set of cognitive processes that help all of us to:

  • Plan and organize daily tasks
  • Be flexible between focusing on a task and then shifting our attention to performing another task
  • Multitasking
  • Manage time-constrained activities
  • Remember things in our mind for a short duration (working memory)
  • Control our impulses
  • Prioritize what is important in our day
  • Monitor ourselves with self-awareness
  • Initiate a plan (knowing when to start an activity) 

This information was obtained from https://researchautism.org/understanding-executive-functions/

Learn more about task initiation and executive functions strategies for autistic teens and young adults here.

Autistic teens may mature at a slower pace in executive function skills

“Teens with autism mature at a slower pace in executive skills. They may have particular trouble with flexibility, organization, initiating activities and working memory. In kids with an autism spectrum disorder, cognitive flexibility is the standout problem for them and seems to remain a problem as they get older,” (Rosenthal, et.al 2013).

So how can we help them improve with their executive function skills and organization skills?

 Tips for Success with Teaching Organization Skills to Autistic Teens

Now that we know what executive function skills are, what strategies can we use to help them with these skills? These are tips I have learned through personal experiences with my family or with clients and then additional strategies I have found through research. 

  • Figure out if these skills are important to them: Figure out if them being unorganized is a priority for them. If losing their homework or having a dirty room is not a priority to them, then they will most likely not want to work with you to improve in this area.  If this is the case, then you may need to wait until they are ready to work on this skill or figure out a way to talk to them about why these skills are important.
  • Get an understanding of their needs and work with them together: Before starting any plan of how to help, you need to have a clear picture of what their needs are in order to help them. What specific thing are they having a hard time figuring out?
  • Make a plan: Start with one specific task and make a plan. Write out the plan on paper or on your phone to keep track of what you did and how it worked. That way you have a way to reflect on what is working well and not so well.
  • Make Lists: Find a visual way to help remember things: You could use written lists or checklists, or use sticky notes to place on mirrors or outside of doors to help give reminders.
  • Find ways to use reminders that work for your teen: this could be alarm reminders set on their phone or iPad or a clock. You could use a watch that goes off at specific times for reminders. Or you could also use a planner or calendar.
  • Visual Supports: We kind of already talked about this above, but setting up visual supports can really help. These can include a to-do list, calendars, planners, real objects, step by step instructions, or labels to help organize.
  • Set up the environment for success: If there is a specific area of the home or a specific area at school you are wanting to help them organize think about how you can set up that space to make things as simple and easy for them to organize or put things away. Work with the teen in this process though, because you need to use a system that works for them. Everyone is different and has different ideas on what works for them. When we organized the laundry room area for my brother to allow him more independence to help put towels and certain clothes away, we used baskets where he could see into them so he could easily sort and figure out what goes where.
  • Social Stories: Social stories can be used to help talk about different social situations when it comes to being organized. Such as remembering your homework, cleaning your room, keeping a clean desk and locker at school. 
  • Start Thinking in Questions: I learned this technique from myaspergerschild.com after learning her strategies for organization. This technique makes sense to me because I personally do this myself. I am always asking myself questions throughout the day so that I don’t forget things. This is something that you may need to teach to others as this may not come easy to them.  She suggested you start by practicing by saying the questions out loud as they come up and you think about them. 
  • Be clear about expectations: This one is huge for me personally, when we are trying to learn something new and doing something that is hard for us we need to really be clear about our expectations. Don’t try to do too much at once. Think about one specific change that you can make to help with organization. The more you change the more you can start to feel overwhelmed and then you will be more likely to go back to your old habits or feel bad about yourself. You may get upset that you didn’t figure out a good technique to work on organization and executive function skills. 

Some Helpful Tips and Resources from Autistic Adults on Organizational Strategies.

I have always wanted to have a better understanding of what it is like to have autism in order to better help my brother and the clients I was serving. As professionals and as parents we have a lot to learn about autism and now with the internet, there are so many more ways to learn and hear about autism through autistic adults. I am going to do my best to help provide you with opportunities to learn from autistic adults. 

Below you will find either blog posts or videos from autistic adults with information about organization strategies.

Autistic Mama has a blog post with 3 super helpful tips for executive function tips for autistic adults. She also has a free download with 10 additional free tips! Check out her post Doable Executive Functioning Tips for Autistic Adults here!  

The Aspie World has a YouTube Channel where he explains a lot of topics about his life with Aspergers. He has a great video about Time Management. You can check out the YouTube Video Here.

He has another video with 7 Time Management Tips you can check that out here

Autistic Not Weird has a great post about Growing Up Autistic. It is not specifically geared towards organization skills, but it has great advice for teenagers with autism. Check it out here!

Some Helpful Products to Teach Executive Functioning and Organization Skills

Your Therapy Source has created an Executive Functioning Resource that is a digital workbook that is a step by step guide to help boost your student’s working memory, impulse control, focus, emotional control, organization, planning, and self-monitoring!

Smart but Scattered Teens: The Executive Skills Program for Helping Teens Reach Their Potential by Richard Guare, Peg Dawson, and Colin Guare created an awesome resource!  This positive guide provides a science-based program for promoting teens' independence by building their executive skills–the fundamental brain-based abilities needed to get organized, stay focused, and control impulses and emotions.

Autism and Organizational skills

 Final Thoughts on Autism and Organization Skills  

Organization skills are a higher level skill and it will take time to learn these skills and find a process that works for the teen you are working with. Have patience and understanding as they are trying to find a strategy that works for them. Things will hopefully go better when you can stay calm when working with them to find strategies that work for them.

One final thought, there is no specific timeline for teens to learn specific skills and understand that it is a process and everyone learns different skills at different rates and times. Autistic Mama has a great article explaining how no one knows your autistic child's future. 

Additional Resources for Organizational Skills and Tips for Autistic Teens

Information from the National Autistic Society about Organization, Sequencing and prioritizing. 

Helping your Child with Autism Get Organized video on YouTube by Autism Grown Up

Autism in the Teen Years: What to expect, how to help by Marina Sarris at the Interactive Autism Network 

Here is an amazing list of Actually Autistic blogs that you can check out if you would like to learn more about autism through their point of view. https://anautismobserver.wordpress.com

Teaching Organizational Skills by Diane Adreon M.A. and Heather Willis PsyD. from the Autism Support Network

Getting Your Life Organized from Autism-Help.org

Organization Skills for Children with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism by myaspergerschild.com

Let me know in the comments below what tips and resources you find helpful or if there is anything else I should add to the list!

Other Life Skills Resources you Will Love

The Best Functional Life Skills Resources for Individuals with Autism

Executive Functioning Challenges with Task Initiation: Resources to Help Teach Life Skills

The Mega Bundle of Functional Life Skills Resources for Teens and Adults


Rosenthal, M., Wallace, G.L., Lawson, R., Wills, M.C., Dixon, E., Yerys, B.E. & Kenworthy, L. (2013) Impairments in real-world executive function increase from childhood to adolescence in autism spectrum disorders. Neuropsychology. 2013 Jan;27(1):13-8. View abstract