Autistic people almost always have executive function issues of one kind or another. Executive function involves cognitive or brain-based processes such as short-term or working memory, choosing what to pay attention to and what to ignore, and switching between different tasks.
Executive function is responsible for the ability to:
- pay attention
- regulate emotions
- start and finish tasks
- avoid distractions
- organize and prioritize actions
- reach goals by following steps, and so on
“In simplest terms, Executive Function means the ability to get stuff done (homework, writing a paper or cleaning a room, etc.). In other words, to execute complex tasks through to completion.”Seth Perler
Additionally, executive function processes are associated with activities that are future-oriented or goal-oriented. These activities often involve following a set of steps or processes.
The pros and cons of executive function challenges in autism
Abilities associated with executive function tend to improve with age, but autistic people have executive function “problems” or difficulties for our entire lives. In some cases, however, our executive functioning differences can actually be beneficial or can be seen as special abilities. Many of us can focus for hours on one subject or task — like building a website or writing a book.
These abilities can serve us very well and lead to success or hyper-functioning. Many autistic people are overachievers in their fields, partly because of their ability to intensely persist at tasks or activities and sustain nearly unwavering attention.
Executive function challenges or differences are not helpful when we sacrifice our wellbeing in order to continue what we’re working on, or when we have trouble prioritizing between specific tasks. We might choose the task that is more interesting over the one that needs to get done more quickly, but not realize in the moment that we are neglecting a task that needs to get done right away.
Executive function issues and neglecting the self
Conversely, some of us become fixated on tasks that we think we should do over those we want to do, meaning we rarely practice self-care or set aside time to do the things that are most enjoyable, relieve stress, and promote wellness. This might mean doing housework until we’re exhausted and neglecting to do activities that we love or that give us joy.
This may have disastrous real world consequences — lost jobs or angry employers, missed appointments, interpersonal difficulties and misunderstandings, development of stress-related illnesses, insomnia, etc. — and can become a big problem… unless we learn ways to work with our executive function differences.
My personal experience with executive function challenges
The executive function difficulty that is the most challenging for me is task switching. I’ll get so into a research topic or a writing or work project that I have a very hard time moving on to the next task, even if the next task is also interesting or enjoyable. As an autistic person, I benefit immensely from the hyper-focus that I often experience, as I get extreme pleasure and satisfaction from hyper-focusing on topics, activities, or tasks that I love. This makes it even harder, though, to stop doing them!
In school, I almost always handed my homework in on time, my work was neat and tidy, and I was a “teacher’s pet.” This is common for many (but certainly not all!) girls with “level 1” autism where there is no intellectual disability. This did not mean it was easy for me, though. I had a lot of interests to keep up with, all of which competed with homework and studying. I had extracurricular activities after school many days of the week and then I’d come home and read books or write poetry or surf the web. Some nights I wouldn’t start schoolwork until midnight, then I’d go to school nearly sleepless the next day.
This was not a rare occasion, but something that became habitual. The lack of sleep and overworking were not sustainable. I began to feel the effects on my body and mind, especially as I got older.
The simple tool that helped me
My goal is not to change who I am. I am quite happy with my brain the way it works and I like the benefits of having this particular set of executive function differences. That said, I want to make the best use of them.
I was gifted a daily planner in high school, and this was a gamechanger for me. I recall that the planner was refillable, came with a pen that matched the cover, and included a list of tips on how to enter information. I quickly set about planning my days and setting out goals and what I wanted to accomplish throughout the day, week, month, and even the year.
For whatever reason, this had not been taught to me before in such a clear and precise way. I benefit most from clear, step-be-step guides, and I just had not been taught how to plan my day before. Ever since that first daily planner, I haven’t been without one since.
Using a daily planner takes getting used to if you haven’t used one before. By far the most important thing in using a daily planner is establishing a routine and sticking to it each and every day. The best way to use a daily planner is to sit down mindfully in the morning either before or after breakfast. Make the process as enjoyable and as peaceful as possible.
I like to sit with a cup of coffee and my daily planner at the breakfast table.
Here is my process:
- Identify the three things that need to get done today.
- Prioritize which task needs to get done first — usually the one with the nearest deadline or the one I like least.
- Schedule my day by blocking out 2-4 hours for each task.
- Make notes, doodle, or jot down ideas that help me focus or remember other things I need to do or get done.
- Since I’m very visual, using highlighters and different ink colours is helpful in sorting the information and drawing my eye to the most important appointments and tasks.
- Cross out items as I complete them.
- End my work day as planned so that I have time for exercise or an enjoyable activity.
References and further reading
Demetriou, E. A., Demayo, M. M., & Guastella, A. J. (2019). Executive function in autism spectrum disorder: History, theoretical models, empirical findings, and potential as an endophenotype. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 10(753).
Johnston, K., Murray, K., Spain, D., Walker, I., & Russell, A. (2019). Executive function: Cognition and behaviour in adults with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 49, 4181-4192.
Perler, S. (n.d.). What is executive functioning? How does it affect my child? Seth Perler.