impaired executive function

Most people on the spectrum have some level of executive function impairment, but how that impairment impacts our lives can vary greatly from person to person.
~ Cynthia Kim
(Nerdy, Shy, and Socially Inappropriate)

The most fascinating aspect of autism that I have encountered so far is the idea of impaired executive function. It’s not something that usually gets listed with other features of autism and I had no idea what “executive functioning” could possibly mean.

Executive function is a broad term that refers to the cognitive processes that help us regulate, control, and manage our thoughts and actions. It includes planning, working memory, attention, problem solving, verbal reasoning, inhibition, cognitive flexibility, initiation of actions, and monitoring of actions.
~ Cynthia Kim
(Nerdy, Shy, and Socially Inappropriate)

I have trouble with all these things! I’ve long considered myself to be inept, clumsy, absent-minded and inflexible — to think how long I’ve desperately tried to force myself to be flexible and easy-going. Even my children tried not to spring things on me, not wanting mom to get hopelessly flustered.

It’s difficult for me to finish a chore if it has too many steps. Sometimes I have to write down each and every step if I want to have any hope of getting the job done. Lists are my friends, I think.

Driving is overwhelming because there are too many things going on to pay attention to. I use my left foot for the brake because the right foot is for the gas pedal. One foot can’t seem to handle two different assignments. When I finally got my driver’s license at the age of 21 the person who tested me decided to pass me if I promised to work on using the one foot for both pedals. He said if I used both feet I would get mixed up and push the wrong pedal sometimes. Now I am glad I didn’t listen to him because I have never gotten the pedals mixed up doing it my way. Now I know why — my brain works a little differently.

I also have many difficulties with problem solving. Often it just doesn’t occur to me that doing something a bit differently would be faster or more effective. And very often I don’t even recognize a problem until someone points it out to me. (I do appreciate the helpful hints, by the way, humble being that I am.) And sometimes when trying to do something familiar in a new setting or at a different time or with different people I simply freeze. In fact freeze is my automatic response when faced with the anxiety of a fight-flight-freeze situation.

When I was a child we often went to visit my widowed aunt who needed my parents’ help with home maintenance and yard work. She always had a stack of gift catalogs — like Harriet Carter, Lillian Vernon, Carol Wright, Miles Kimball — but I called them problem-solving catalogs. My parents never had these fascinating resources! While Auntie was cooking a Sunday dinner I used to study them carefully, amazed at all the clever gadgets people invented to solve problems I never imagined existed!

Something more recent now… I have two tall bookcases with glass doors that I need to move to finish painting the living/dining room. I wanted someone to help me by standing on the floor while I stood on a chair and emptied the top shelf, handing them the items to put on the table. I wanted to do it this way because I didn’t want to have to keep getting up on and down off the chair. That’s pretty much how I always tackled the problem but when I was younger there was always a child available to help me out.

Then one night about a week ago I was sitting on the couch looking at them and it suddenly occurred to me that I could take things off a lower shelf and then move the things off the top shelf onto the lower shelf while still standing on the chair. I was amazed at my sudden and unfamiliar brilliance! Why didn’t I think of this years ago?

What is unusual here is that I figured this one out by myself. To do things my way is usually tedious at best. Most of the shortcuts I’ve learned over the years for doing housework have come from how-to books or from friends and relatives pointing things out to me. I still remember how enlightened I felt when my aunt told me about felt circles I could stick to the bottom of the kitchen chairs to muffle the loud noise they made when moved across the floor. Who knew?

Frustratingly, an executive function deficit is not something you can fix by simply trying harder. Often, other people will look at the symptoms of impaired executive function and assume the autistic person is lazy, spaced out, or disorganized. If only they would make more effort, everything could be fixed. In fact, I think most autistic people — including me — think this of themselves at times.
~ Cynthia Kim
(Nerdy, Shy, and Socially Inappropriate)

6 thoughts on “impaired executive function”

  1. thanks for explaining more about autism Barbara….one of the guys I’ve been working with recently mentioned a couple of months ago that he felt he was borderline autistic, I know from when I first met him that his mind was fascinatingly different in the way he saw things…diversity is excellent in the human race, love to you, Tai

    1. I definitely agree with you, Tai! It seems the more we embrace diversity the more unity we create. I found the book “NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism & The Future of Neurodiversity” by Steve Silberman utterly fascinating. No doubt neurodiversity will prove to be as important as biodiversity is for the welfare of our planet. I bet there are a lot of us out here, like the guy you’ve been working with, wondering about how our minds navigate the neurotypical world. ❤

  2. How very interesting, Barbara. I love what Tai just said about diversity in this human race. It feels like you are feeling a level of comfort recognizing yourself from a new place. I don’t know too much about autism (except through a friend who has an autistic grandson) but am feeling like a child in some ways lately coming from new directions, new ways of being. Have realized lately that this mind doesn’t work like most minds…relaxing into that, allowing it to be OK. And that sounds like your journey in some ways too. Blessings!

    1. Yes, I am feeling a lot more comfortable being me these days. I love the idea of neuro-tribes! No two members of any sort of tribe are exactly alike so I don’t feel trapped by the label of autism, but rather set free from the pressure of trying to be “normal,” whatever that is considered to be at any given time. Our paths have often connected, Kathy, and I think embracing non-duality led me to accept what is, allowing it to be another appearance in the endless flow of the universe. I love the way you keep growing and finding new ways of being. Blessings to you, my friend. ❤

  3. I am learning a lot from your posts Barbara and am glad you feel comfortable enough to share with us; your blogging virtual friends group.

    I wonder what “normal” is ? Is anyone “normal” ? We are all dealing with differences of the mind or body or upbringing or class or sexual identity or colour, or, or, or …

    I am pleased you are learning more about your “normal” ..

    Hugs, Sybil

    1. That’s it exactly, Sybil! Are blue eyes “normal” or are brown eyes “normal”? We cannot see our brains but they do look different on brain scans. That’s why I like the term neurodiversity. Neurotypical brains may be more common but that doesn’t make autistic brains abnormal, just like brown eyes are more common but blue eyes are not considered abnormal. I’m learning that autism is not a condition to be cured, but rather to be accommodated in various ways. Thank you for your support, my friend. *hugs*

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