Today I wrote this on Facebook: I am probably the least practical person I know. My executive functioning is horrible. I get lost in my own suburb, turn up late for stuff, forget important details about everyone and everything in my life. I fail to understand how there can be a ‘proper’ place for things. Who writes that rule? A carpark to me is basically a big space full of random cars in meaningless order which makes no sense whatsoever. I understand that this can be irritating for others – it irritates me! However, I prefer to think of myself as a Masters graduate who has written three published books, given a TEDx talk and who won ACT Volunteer of the Year. Plus the executive functioning stuff I actually can’t help – I’m not doing it to piss people off. So please be friendly and see past the person trying to unlock the front door of Whimsy Manor with her work pass and change the TV station with her phone.
The post was partially humorous but not entirely. Like many others on the Autism spectrum I struggle with this thing called ‘executive functioning.’ The first reasonably reputable website I went to for a neat description described executive function as ‘….basically the management system of the brain. These mental functions work together to help us organise and manage the many tasks in our daily life. Impairments in our executive functions, which are thought to involve the frontal lobes of the brain, can have a major impact on our ability to perform such tasks as planning, prioritising, organising, paying attention to and remembering details, and controlling our emotional reactions.’
That definition is mostly true for me. The only birthdays I can remember are those of my immediate family and even then I need to write them down. I see people at work and comment that I hadn’t seen them in a while and they respond with some surprise that they were overseas for six months and I was at their going away party!
When I travel I can’t hold the times and days for flights and things n my head and frequently check my itinerary and hotel bookings so I don’t forget to go to some important event for which my presence is an integral part. Bus timetables baffle me, changes in time zones across countries are so confusing my head actually hurts with concentration when I try to find out what time my radio show guest in San Francisco needs me to call them.
While these things can be challenging for me, I often find the most difficult part is when people can’t understand why someone who is apparently intelligent but doesn’t know whether to turn the clock backwards or forwards for daylight savings and, when i do, how that will affect the time in another state relative to where I am. People can be quite rude about this deficit. They think I’m ‘vague’ or stupid. It isn’t either of those things, I am not at all vague – my brain is always completely alert and thinking about things, usually quite insightfully. However I have learned to say I am vague as people seem to understand the concept of ditzy rather than the concept of Autistic for some reason.
Some people seem to find my difficulties with practical tasks baffling – here is somebody who wrote an autobiography in four weeks! I find writing, public speaking, making art, hosting my radio show, my paid job in government administration and all the mentoring and facilitation I do completely effortless but I can’t work out daylight savings time! Other people get annoyed by me. Maybe they think I am being deliberately helpless or something. Maybe they just get annoyed that I can’t do things their neurotypical seven year old would find easy and I’m a grown woman. Maybe they think I am looking for sympathy. They snap at me ad glare at me and look all impatient and cranky. This makes things worse because then I get stressed and upset with myself for being unable to do these things.
I wish people would ask rather than assume and then I could tell them about the difficulties I am having, why it isn’t deliberate and is just part of what makes me who I am.
Strangely enough I have managed to overcome some of my executive functioning issues over the years, Anyone who has worked with me or booked me as a speaker or been an editor for one of my books will tell you how organised I am. I am actually not naturally organised at all. I have learned a number of useful strategies to help me get things done and done by the deadline. I have a bunch of spreadsheets which I make sure I update with each new task and keep updated every day. I also make sure if someone asks me a quick question or wants me to do something small, I do it straight away. This is because smaller things slip out of my brain and get left behind. People always comment on how organised and responsive I am but it isn’t so much me as the helpful strategies I use.
If you are dealing with executive functioning difficulties and need to address them to perform work or other tasks, you can make your own strategies which work for you. If you have supportive partner, family member or good friend you can enlist them to assist you as well. Working out a ‘system’ around scheduling activities (or whatever you ant to improve at) which you find intuitive and sensible can be really useful too. And never listen to people who put you down and criticise you for your executive functioning issues. If someone had vision impairment and used a cane, people wouldn’t think to criticise them because they couldn’t see. Having executive functioning issues is sort of like being vision impaired – you can’t help it, it is challenging for you and can require some assistive strategies to enable you to live the life you want to..
“How did I get in here??”