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.
My favourite daily planners
- Brownline 2021 Daily Planner, Perfect Binding
- Bliss Collections Daily Planner Tear Off Pad, 50 Undated Sheets
- Clever Fox Daily Premium Planner, Undated
What has helped you the most? Feel free to leave a comment or send me an email.
References & 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.
Dawn Prince-Hughes is an autistic anthropologist, primatologist, and ethnologist. She is an adjunct professor at Western Washington University.
Here are some quotes from “An Exceptional Path: An Ethnographic Narrative Reflecting on Autistic Parenthood from Evolutionary, Cultural, and Spiritual Perspectives” in Ethos, Journal of the Society for Psychological Anthropology.
To read the entire article, check out:
On being incredibly sensitive:
“Since I can remember — and that is from my own beginning — I have been pierced and pained by the intensity of life. There were many times as a child I believed I would crumble in on myself, my emotional skeleton finally eaten away by the screaming and clutching of a modern society that dissolved me. ‘Normal life’, other people call it.”Dawn Prince-Hughes
“I would sit at my desk at school or on the steps of my house and feel the eating away on the inside of me and the growing pressure outside — on my skin, my eyes, my ears — and I would wonder if I would just disappear. I was sure it could happen and I would cry. I felt as though I was made of stone and pain, as if my frame was a crying fossil…”Dawn Prince-Hughes
On autism as hyper-connectedness:
“I don’t have a good sense of where I start and end and where the things around me have boundaries. I am always a living part of a living world. I inhabit this living world with everything feeling like an extension of myself, and with myself as an extension of all around me.”Dawn Prince-Hughes
“My struggles with school and its reflection as a training ground for disconnection started early in my life. From the din and pain of kindergarten to the time I quit high school and was then homeless for many years. People would tell me I ‘wasn’t cut out’ for school and normal life and now I know it was because I wasn’t cut out at all. I was just connected. I invoke these particular memories here to begin to reflect on how that connectedness, and antidote to all the cutting and dismembering we are taught through formal education, eventually led to my being an anthropologist, a person, a mother without seams.”Dawn Prince-Hughes
“We are all strange and broken and beautiful in our own ways. We are each so afraid of disconnection and yet it can’t be easily escaped; some say it is an inevitable state of being and, perhaps, the price of consciousness. That fact makes our connections to other living things all the more important to cultivate. There is beauty in our difference and also beauty in our sameness: sameness with other animals, sameness with one another. We feel the loss of so many things: falling forests, disappearing animals, the loss of each other as we move far and fast in our culture.”Dawn Prince-Hughes
“I think back to our original ancestors. If they were, as I believe, like me in their way of being, their needs were simple after the eating and drinking: to be loved, to be appreciated for their special abilities, to want to leave something meaningful behind them.”Dawn Prince-Hughes
On the deficit model of autism and autism being a disability only in a particular context:
“Knowing that there is much illusion in the world I feel sure that my way of being is only a disability of context, that what have been labeled symptoms of autism in the context of my culture are inherited gifts of insight and action.”Dawn Prince-Hughes
“I knew I would be honest when [my son] asked questions, that I would make sure there were no final answers to anything, and because being broken is, to a large degree, dependent on context, I would protect him from the elements of this culture that would wound him wrongly.”Dawn Prince-Hughes
On motherhood as an autistic mother:
“At times, though, the prospect of being a modern mother would overtake me. Soon before my son was born my fears about being a different kind of mother came back to me. Surrounded as I was by the same culture that had always pointed out my potential failings as a single entity, I now saw evidence everywhere that motherhood in the material and disconnected world was something every mother needed guidance to survive.”Dawn Prince-Hughes
“Even more for [autistic] mothers like me than those of the ‘normal’ [neurotypical] type, there are very frightening pitfalls; for example, the kind of wild sensitivity autism can bring to the surface at K-Mart is like unto an elemental force. Discomfort and bewilderment in certain settings like that can engulf people like me with such ferocity that people who don’t understand its effects might well believe they are dealing with some escaped animal.”Dawn Prince-Hughes
On being an autistic mother to an autistic son:
“The way [my son] is connected has been as terrible a thing as it has been wondrous. When he was trying to save a spider at the library when he was in kindergarten, urging it to climb onto his hand to put it outside, some teenage boys came over and killed it. … He cried for days about the death of the spider and his helplessness to save it. A year later … when I came out to see what he was doing, he proudly showed me that he was escorting baby spiders, the size of pinpoints, over to the bush one by one so that they could find a better place to live. He was still whole.”Dawn Prince-Hughes
“Late in kindergarten, though, he came home from school crying because he was different. Through his tears he told me that he cares about things the other kids don’t care about.”Dawn Prince-Hughes
“I had hoped that the beauty I have shown him about his difference would carry him through … It soon became clear, though, that he was learning, through the flooding of his senses, in a time and place too loud and bright and complicated, that human people can be dangerous. Even though I explained to him that they are also wondrous and beautiful, I can’t argue with what he was beginning to understand.”Dawn Prince-Hughes
“Unfortunately, the chief danger and distance he was learning is that people can tell you that what you are isn’t what you should be. I knew that the children at school were teasing him for talking to plants and bugs an rocks. His teacher told us he had a learning disability and had some attention deficit problems. He was starting to not be able to sleep at night and had anxiety attacks. Where he had always been an easy child he started to throw himself to the floor and scream over the smallest challenges. He started to be unable to go to restaurants because the lights hurt his eyes and the normal noise of conversation hurt his ears … He developed strict routines and would fall apart if something unexpected happened. He started to develop tics. He was becoming contextually autistic.”Dawn Prince-Hughes
“I have home schooled him for the last three years and he is bright and flourishing. He is contextually open and interested in the world and the people close to him, his family and friends that mirror his gifts and help him make meaningful sense of being a human person … Where he had started to be self-conscious of his connection to all the things around him, he now once more takes me by the hand to share the world.”Dawn Prince-Hughes
“Now that my son is nine, we share our sense of wonder that we should be a part of so much. We will be walking and see a leaf fall from a tree. ‘I felt that like it slipped off my finger and slipped down my spine to the roots of my feet,’ I will tell him. His hand in mine he’ll smile and nod.”Dawn Prince-Hughes