Autism and Executive Dysfunction
Executive dysfunction and autism are common bedfellows, yet it's one of the lesser-known traits expressed by those on the spectrum, a fact I suspect does much to reinforce some of the more unhelpful stereotypes (and, in particular, make it difficult for many autistics to maintain gainful employment).
What is Executive Dysfunction?
The term "executive function" describes functions such as planning, impulse control, working memory, mental flexibility, and inhibition , as well as the functions responsible and required for initiating and monitoring action.
There are nine aspects of executive function.
Executive dysfunction refers to a condition where our functioning in one or more of these aspects is somewhat below par, and it makes tasks governed by those aspects difficult and even seemingly impossible.
Up to 80% of autistics have executive dysfunction, although we all tend to express our condition differently (as you'd expect).
Here's how autism and executive dysfunction affect me, specifically...
I understand the reasons and methodologies behind planning. What I lack is execution. I find objective tracking lists and spreadsheets helpful here.
Left to myself, I’m more than likely to disappear down an irrelevant rabbit hole. The times I’ve done this in work (both in employment and in my own business) are innumerable.
Ironically, I'm great at making plans, both for myself and clients, but carrying them out?
I have no problems with problem solving.
On the contrary, I'd say it's one of my strong points.
Working memory is fine (although I’m typically forgetful of tasks others ask me to do e.g. take the rubbish out, email someone, or check something online for Mrs EBG or a colleague or client).
Attention span is… sketchy, to say the least. I'm SO easily distracted.
My reasoning ability is fine (although I tend to take things literally, especially if I'm tired, stressed, or getting into overwhelm).
Initiation of action be troublesome for me. I can sit in front of my computer knowing I have work to do but am (literally) unable even to start it.
It's important to understand this is not procrastination, fear of success, fear of failure, perfectionism, or any one of a number of labels so beloved of the armchair pop-psychologists.
I have poor impulse control (e.g. I become interested in a topic and the next thing I know is I’ve bought 20 books on the topic and thrown myself into it without a thought about the potential consequences and knock-on effects in other areas of my life and work).
One consequence of this is, in the main, Mrs EBG controls our finances (I make the money and she spends it).
Because if it was left to me I'd spend all our money on fuck-knows-what (something exacerbated by the fact I know how easy money is to make, quite literally on demand, one benefit of being superb at my job and having a stellar and world-class reputation to match).
I need and thrive upon daily routine and find it difficult when plans change.
But BIG changes — like moving country — I see more as a challenge and a chance to prove my mettle and resilience.
I am pretty set in my ways and opinions but also value critical thinking and will change my thinking in the face of evidence.
Monitoring is poor. When I’m tired or overloaded, I suddenly have problems with the “autopilot” settings on basic activities.
I drop or bump into things, or simply fail to pay attention in ways that could be hazardous, like walking out onto a busy street.
What Executive Dysfunction is NOT
It is absolutely NOT a mindset issue.
I shouldn't need to say this, even.
But as we've come to learn and now expect, the world is full of neurotypical busybodies, do-gooders, and "coaches" who seem to have nothing better to do than to tell people like me how broken we are and how with the right "mindset shift" we can deal with all this once and for all.
So many fucking idiots; so few shallow graves in the woods to drop their unworthy carcasses in.
Executive dysfunction is deeply buried in our neurology and is a disorder.
The best we can do is find workarounds, and that's exactly what I've done.
My business partner and I have structured our entire business — both how we run it and how we interact with and serve our clients — to accommodate my autistic foibles, and the greater part of those are to be found in my executive dysfunction.
I realise I'm fortunate here, because as I'm sure you can imagine, autism and executive dysfunction frequently combine to make an individual effectively unemployable because it can affect and reflect itself in virtually every aspect of the job, from timekeeping and execution of their duties to how he or she interacts with and relates to customers, clients, colleagues, and management.
So, the next time you're tempted to disregard and disparage an autistic person for being unreliable, awkward, inconsiderate, incompetent, or just plain lazy, stop and think...
... there's an 80% chance there's shit they're dealing with you cannot even begin to comprehend.
Jon McCulloch, The Evil Bald Genius
Author, speaker, business owner, and autism advocate