What’s Your (Executive) Dysfunction?

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One important thing to note throughout this blog is my executive functioning or lack thereof.

What is executive functioning? It involves processes that help a person regulate themselves and their resources so they can do what needs done. Mental control and the ability to self-regulate is important, especially as an adult, and something all “typical” children eventually are able to do & control.

I never knew about executive functions or that I lacked them until I was an adult.

As an adult, I should be able to stop my own behavior at an appropriate time, whether this is in action or in thought. This is inhibition when you have it, and impulsivity when you don’t. I am, and always have been, impulsive and unable to prevent myself from doing things or having thoughts — my mind is often like a runaway train with no brakes, just waiting to crash into something to stop me.

When it comes to shifting from one situation to another with ease, as well as being adaptable in thoughts while reacting properly to the new circumstances, this is a major failing. I cannot go from one thing to another without first being warned about what is coming. An example would be from walking into a place expecting it to be quiet, only for someone to throw me a surprise party — an absolute no-no for me. Many non-autistics would react with a smile and say thanks, feeling pleased with all the support from their friends and family, while I’m more likely to (and have done) burst into tears and run away.

Both of these lead into emotional control and being able to self-manage my emotions by making sure to bring rational thought along for the ride at the same time. I am more likely to react first emotionally before thinking it through logically. My meltdowns are often of the emotional kind and have frequently resulted in me being referred to as “negative and pathetic” even though I am neither. This is simply how I process new and often unexpected or disappointing information.

Most people give me advice during this breakdown, which is a waste of time and breath, when all I really want them to do is listen and let me “get the negative out” as I like to call it.

These first three mostly affect my personal life, although since I began writing and publishing on my own, my work life and personal life collide a lot more than I would like. As I rely on the income to survive, they become more and more entwined, which can have serious consequences for me when I experience a meltdown.

What sort of executive functions can make working and keeping a job difficult?

First, there is initiation, which is one’s potential to start a duty or chore or assignment, as well as be able to come up with ideas on your own. This also factors into responses and problem-solving; one should be able to produce strategies to deal with problems as well as handle responsibilities.

This ties in with a working memory, which means I should be able to keep information I need in mind to complete the task at hand. Of course, this involves being able to plan & organize current and future demands, so I know what to do now and later for whatever the task is.

In order to do both of these, there is a need to organize my materials. That is, the areas in which I work, play and store things must be able to help me find what I need without much trouble, no matter what I’m doing.

However, without the ability to self-monitor and figure out whether my performance measures up against the standard of what is desired in my job, I am often left in the dark as to whether or not I am doing an okay job — I need and really, require, immediate feedback in this regard.

For most of the above, I am more at the end of “unable” to do them, but this isn’t so true when it comes to the last two.

Accountability, which everyone knows means the ability to take ownership over your responsibilities, is something I can mostly do. It doesn’t matter that I usually do it badly — I do own my responsibilities, even if I can’t handle many of them without help. I am not, however, likely to take risks because the unknown is a scary and meltdown-inducing place for me. Getting out of my comfort zone is one of my hardest efforts to make and one in which I frequently fail at doing.

And lastly, there is communication, my mortal enemy!

Not really, although sometimes the constant need for communication makes me want to shut down at the worst times.

Now, there will be more mentions about this, but in short, communication as an executive function means a person should be able to tell others what they need. Also, they should not only understand what others are telling them in personal and professional areas, but be able to have others understand them as well, while keeping the communication at an appropriate level for whatever the situation.

We all know what this means. There are things you can talk about in your personal life that you shouldn’t mention in professional communications. When you are young, this matters less, but it becomes imperative as an adult, and it is something I still struggle with now even though I’ve improved immensely over the years through repetitive means.


Put all these items together — that is, inhibition, shift, emotional control and self-regulation, initiation, working memory, planning and organization, organizing materials, self-monitoring, accountability, and communication — and you’ve got a self-sufficient adult who has complete control over themselves and their lives.

And all of these issues, along with the accompanying struggles, are present from my childhood into today.

Which of these do you struggle with? Have you found any workarounds to assist with those areas?

About the author

An Autistic Gal

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