• Mair Elliott

Executive functioning

For those who don't have any executive functioning difficulties or difference they may not even consider this key part of being human. It's something that I had never heard of before I became more closely involved in the autistic community. When I did learn about executive functioning it explained so much.

Executive functioning is basically the personal assistant of your brain - it deals with all the tasks that allows you to be a functioning human being and focus on more complex tasks. It covers short-term or working memory, attention or focus, task prioritisation, organisation, inhibition of behaviour, planning, flexible thinking and more. On a day to day level, executive functioning is the part of the brain that reminds you to brush your teeth, to make your breakfast and then eat it, plan your day effectively, do the tasks that are boring but need to be done (like, 'life admin'), to organise work load, cope with changes to plans, remember instructions or directions, focus in meetings … I could go on. It typically develops in teenage years through early adulthood. Without it, you'd be a toddler in a suit.

Now, before you ask, I'm not quite a toddler in a suit. I do have some executive functioning - it's just not very reliable. Neither does it mean I'm not intelligent, I can still do complex tasks, work like any other adult, however my brain just doesn't back me up with the memory, organisation, prioritisation, planning or focus. So, I can read complex scientific papers, but forget to put clean pants on. I can write detailed speeches on complex matters, but life admin, especially expenses forms, have me completely stumped. I can stand up and deliver a talk to hundreds of people, but I can't focus any more than 2 minutes in meetings (even if they are important). I can remember to do the one task I'm interested in, but I will forget to do everything else. I will start to make myself food, get distracted and never return to eat said food. I will be given a task I'm very capable of completing, however I can't work out the steps from starting to finishing said task. Someone can ask me to do something or give me a simple list of instructions and I will forget it all within seconds, but I will remember complex theories and random facts forever.

Its an unpredictable thing too, which makes it worse in some ways. I might have an hour of good executive functioning, but I'll lose it which is deeply frustrating. Things like stress, mood, tiredness, environment, physical health, hormones, and time of day all have an impact. I can never guarantee when my executive functioning will be good, so I just have to jump on the opportunity when it arises, and just survive in between.

On a daily basis it can become a huge barrier to being able to live life. It's all well and good being able to perform complex tasks that I'm really interested in - but without the planning, organising, memory, focus, etc. I can't really function very well. Take this morning as an example- I got myself out of bed, went swimming because that was something I really wanted to do, but got home and sat in the shower for over an hour, and still managed to forget to wash my hair. I then discovered that I haven't done any washing so I have no clean clothes. Thankfully, I'm working from home today so it doesn't matter too much that my hair is a greasy mess and my clothes smell, on other days it is a big problem. Today I have a huge list of tasks to do, mainly consisting of life admin, but I am sitting here writing a blog post because I can't get my brain to cooperate long enough to do anything else. I have a teleconference that I'm dreading because I know it will be a mammoth task to keep myself focussed for it's entirety, I have loads of expenses to claim but I just can't 'do' the forms, so I will probably give up and take a hit financially.

The thing that is most difficult is knowing I am intellectually capable of doing this stuff, and when I can't, my default is to assume I'm lazy and stupid. I worry that others think the same thing. I have to put a lot of my energy into simply reducing the effect of poor executive functioning on my life. This involves detailed calendars and diaries, lots of lists - one big to-do list and lots of little to-do lists for each time segment, I have to breakdown each task in written steps to get things done, I set reminders on my phone, plan and organise things to the smallest detail, set myself goals, do one thing at time to avoid getting distracted, and so on. I know logically that I am neither lazy nor stupid, I just have brain that's not wired to do executive functioning. This is just one part to autism, which impacts on employment, daily functioning, self-esteem, and even financially for some. Poor executive functioning is a normal part of many autistic people's lives. From my own experience, it is one of reasons I consider Autism to be a disability, despite the positives being autistic can bring.

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