By: Waverly Ann Harris

Independence is important to every individual. For adults with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities (IDD), independence becomes a daily priority for them and their families as it adds to the quality of life for all parties. Individuals can be equipped with appropriate life skills to be more independent at home and in the community.  

To increase independence, it is important to understand Executive Function and how it impacts everyday activities involving planning, organizing, impulse control, self-regulation, and cognitive flexibility. These functions are necessary for a host of daily activities from bathing to cooking a meal, from cleaning one’s room to getting to work on time. Individuals with IDD often lack full development of these skills. This may explain why it is often difficult to understand why a person is unable to complete a simple task or know in what order steps for a task should be completed. It can explain lack of flexibility and difficulty regulating emotions.   


Executive function regulates emotions, thoughts, mental processing, organization, decision-making, and impulses. It can even impact the ability to learn from past mistakes. Being aware of this can help us understand why it might be frustrating for a caregiver, however, it can also validate how frustrating it might be for the individual as well.   

If a person struggles with Executive Function, their behavior may look like defiance, laziness, or lack of intelligence. Instead, their brain is simply developed differently than others, and what is being presented to them may not make sense in their mind.  They need the information to be presented in a different way. 

Executive Function can lead to misunderstandings and challenges in communication which can also lead to conflict. Whether large or small, it may be easier to have compassion for others and for self when we better understand the impact of Executive Function and a person’s capacity in certain situations. 

Many tools can be used to support a person and help them better navigate their environment with greater independence. Such as:  

  • Checklists and planners  
  • Routines and rituals 
  • Literal explanations and visual stories 
  • Clear expectations and consequences 
  • Natural reinforcement and supports 
  • Meditation and Yoga (for mornings, for evenings, for stress)