The most comprehensive and easiest-to-grasp-in-real-life-terms article I’ve found to date, written by an Aspergian, for Aspergians, is from Musings of an Aspie (one of those blogs I found in my Early Discovery Days that comforted me, reassured me, encouraged me), and it’s so beautifully written that I won’t regurgitate her words (at least, not too much). Suffice it to say that Executive Function controls higher reasoning and complex thought, like the pilot of a plane, having to control all the gauges and keep tabs on everything.
Broken down a little further, executive function has domain over concepts like planning, problem-solving, decision-making, strategy-formation, complex thoughts, coordination, attention and focus, short-term memory, inhibition (self-restraint) etc.
When I first read the “official” sources of information on Autism Spectrum “Disorders”, and they mentioned problems with executive function among the traits, I thought, “OK, all the other criteria fit, but no way is this executive function thing a problem for me. I’m certainly capable of complex thought. And I make lists and plan every project down to the minutest detail. Rather than having an attention deficit, I can actually hyper-focus for hours, getting in the ‘zone’. I can define problems and form strategies to solve them. I can think in shades of grey. And I’m probably too self-restrained. So in terms of executive function, no, mine’s OK.” After all, I could move mountains and then some…as long as I had a daily to-do list within easy reach to guide me through the murky waters of daily living.
Well, then I found Musings of an Aspie and several other good resources that discussed specifically what this looks like in real life, how it actually manifests.
And it got me thinking…
As Musings of an Aspie gave real-life, adult-Aspergian examples in Part 1 of her Executive Function Primer, I realized that I identify–a lot–with those examples. When I read that executive function impairment also includes things like making lists, messy rooms, leaving things turned on, forgetting to take a break from work, I realized that yeah, this whole “EF Thing” is probably a “Thing” for me, too. Forgetting things has been so commonplace (it’s simply not a typical day if I don’t forget something) that I almost, well, forget that I do it.
Of course, my specific examples are different (they usually are). Mine include forgetting my smoothie in the fridge while racing around, getting ready for work and forgetting something on every. Single. Trip. Out of town. Last year at Christmas, it was the car charger for my cell phone, so I had to ration my use throughout the day until I got back to “home base” that evening. Another time, it was my earphones that I use for having long conversations on said cell phone. Another time, it was my cash for tipping cab drivers, etc. Another time, it was my Benadryl. And yet another, it was deodorant (eeek!)
And Executive Function Fail does not just involve a spotty short-term memory, either…
…..Our apartment is a mess. Cleaning it takes planning, which I don’t often have the mental energy to do.
…..I lose things–constantly. I lost more house keys than I care to imagine, as a child. When I got into high school and learned how to jimmy a lock with a plastic card, I started purposefully leaving my house key at home and using my driver’s license or library card to pry the door open instead. (After all, hey–I couldn’t lose my key (again) if it was sitting on my bedroom desk!)
Until a few years ago, I lost my phone, keys, and wallet dang near daily before I came up with a system for remembering. My motto is “Screw it–I’ll find it when I’m looking for something else!”
I’m also cognitively blind; I’ll look for something in the same place five times and finally, in frustration, enlist my partner for help. He’ll find it in that same spot. But I checked that spot five times and not one of those times was it there. Oh yes–it sure was–I just didn’t see it.
…..I’m physically clumsy, and poor executive function may explain at least part of that. There’s a top-heaviness I experience while just doing simple things like walking from room to room.
Eating is just as complex a task; my partner and I have half-jokingly agreed that I’m not allowed to use forks anymore because half the forkful falls off before it has finished traveling the short distance to my mouth. I’m relegated to spoons, preferably the personal-sized soup spoons; tougher for the food to fall off. Clumsiness permeates my daily life, having its way with every physical action that I attempt; I forget that my thermos is sitting on the side of the sink; therefore, I invariably knock it into the sink. Yes, every time.
…..I procrastinate, while knowing intuitively that I work best under pressure (which I do). Other people have mistaken this for laziness and/or underachievement. I have to plan everything; otherwise, I’m lost. The bigger the task or project, the more extensive the planning, and the longer the planning stage takes. EF issues are why huge projects like rebuilding/designing a new intake paperwork packet for our healthcare office have been shelved for 5–yes, five–years.
This is not an isolated example; other projects have been similarly paused. I wrote 200+ pages of a book in 6 weeks, only to have to leave for a 10-day conference, and it’s been on hold ever since. That was 3 years ago. And executive function problems are also why, once I get going on something (especially something work-related or some other Special Interest), I find it so hard to find a Stopping Point. Yes, I’ll forget to eat and drink. I might even forget to pee. Sometimes I don’t honestly know when I’m hungry, thirsty, tired, or in need of a ladies’ room.
…..But I can’t carry out two tasks at the same time. The word “multitasking” does not apply to me. It’s an alien concept. This applies to me even when I’m in that hyper-focus “zone”. I can’t be working on clientele charts and answer an office administration question at once. About the best that I can do is, late at night, watch Forensic Files on TV and comb through scientific research journals by title at night; neither take much brain energy, so that’s fairly easy. But forget the rest. And although I’m a decent driver (careful, courteous, polite, attentive, safe, and surprisingly, coordinated, with excellent reflexes), driving is a nightmare for me; it’s extremely mentally taxing.
…..Sometimes, it’s the simple things I can’t do. Trying to make decisions, especially if the question was posed in an open-ended way. Life for me is more of a multiple-choice, choose-the-best-answer endeavor, rather than a fill-in-the-blank short-answer question. Choosing a movie to watch at night, remembering to close cupboard doors, deciding what I want to eat, deciding what to wear, etc, can all be temporarily-paralyzing questions that can stop me in my tracks for a little while.
…..I rely too heavily on those to-do lists. I’m actually surprisingly adept at making them. I can conceptualize an outline and make it happen on paper (or on an electronic device, preferably–can’t lose it that way). Sticking to the list (or accomplishing everything on it by a certain time) however, is another story. I can safely and proudly say that I’ve never missed an important deadline; my clientele at work have never been negatively impacted, nor can I recall ever having let down friends or family. (Yay!) But I’m sure that I could be further along in my career if I had better executive function; not being able to finish (or sometimes, begin) large projects has probably worked against me.
…..Cognitive flexibility (another aspect of executive function) is also not a term that’s in my vocabulary. There is no such thing as efficient/easy Switching of the Tasks (pre-Aspie-discovery term was “shifting gears”) for me. I do get downright irrational and irritable when forced to do so too quickly. Change sucks. I don’t see the need to upgrade my operating system or apps on any of my computers or other electronic devices. I generally despise when websites or products are revamped with a “new look(!)” because now I’ll probably have trouble finding them (products in a store) or using them (websites, etc). I don’t see the need to update my wardrobe or keep track of current trends. I don’t get the “itch” to remodel the apartment or change out the furniture every so often “just because”, like (it seems) other people do. The phrase “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” (another motto for me) was probably coined by an Aspie!
Part of me wonders if there’s any hope of improving this aspect of Asperger’s; I feel that these particular traits hold me back in multiple aspects of my daily life, and I would like not to have to contend with them, but rather, I’d like to resolve and transcend them. I reckon time will tell. 🙂
(Image Credit: sythesite)