Executive function…reappraised

Today has been an interesting exercise in re-measuring my executive function skills, or lack thereof, so I find I want to jot my observations down while they are fresh (if I still have enough energy left in me to type this up since I find I quite burned out by the experience). Its a sore topic I have written about before (Executive Burnout, 2019) and this, I suppose, is a continuation since there is no conclusion as such…it just is what it is (though the problems come when you try to live in denial of such a weak-spot).

As an autistic person who has now compared and contrasted with a lot of other autistic women, I have already identified that this is a weak area of mine…even though, for a lot of years, I seemed to have extremely good executive skills; but I can now assure you that was just a case of trying hard.

Very hard!

In fact, I perfected trying hard at EF skills like my life depended on it, from the first age I noticed how apparently important they were, back in the stage of school when you realise you have to organise the contents of your school bag, plan and hand-in homework on time and take note of every minor thing you are meant to deliver to keep parents, teachers and anyone else happy, all the time, or life is likely to crash and burn most horribly. This last point was exceptionally important to me, more so than to many kids, as I loathe conflict of any kind, struggle desperately with criticism, hate to be thought of badly and require an extremely peaceful life in order to keep all my other plates spinning and my little ducks all lined-up in a row. Without this degree of predictability, calm and order, I quickly go all to pieces so this quickly became a matter of priority and survival, hence the top priority I gave to mastering EF tasks. If life wasn’t going to turn into some sort of terrible disaster scene crashing and burning all around me, I knew very early on that I had to master these executive function tasks and, in a way, make them my specialism.

What ensued, therefore, were a number of years where EF skills made up the bulk of how I “sold myself” to prospective employers, since (as an English graduate) I didn’t feel I had any other obvious skills to offer them or which would be deemed to have much commercial value. Therefore, several jobs, including but not limited to years of self-employment doing contract work for other businesses, required of me that I juggle an exceptionally complex array of executive tasks…and that juggling part wasn’t so much the issue (since fine details and big pictures are what I am good at) so much as all that decision making, multi-tasking, people pleasing, well-timed execution and the sheer precision required of it all at once. My longest-running job was an executive functioning circus and I was the ring master. Then, in the self-employed years, which were meant to be easier, I had multiple “masters’ to serve since I worked for several entities and each had its own EF requirements to be met, plus I had to be in more than one place at a time, with deadlines that often clashed. Looking back, it took a toll that I tended to put down to other life stressors but now, well, now I see it all too clearly; I had bitten off way more than I could naturally chew as someone with Asperger’s. The only thing I can say in my favour, for those early years, was that I had youth and stamina on my side but executive functioning tends to get weaker, in all of us, with age and, in my case, I was already on borrowed time and resources. I was still, effectively, in the wrong line of work.

Which is to say, just because you “can” do something doesn’t automatically make it a good fit!!

Each extra year of doing it seemed to shave another layer of cushioning from my wheels so that more and more sparks were starting to fly as I rolled down life’s road. By my mid thirties, with the EF horror show of parenthood now piled on the top, I was about ready to be pushed over the edge and that came soon enough, during the years up to and around my divorce, when I joined a large scale corporate employer whilst still trying to run some of my self-employed load in my spare time (a case of needs must).

What I dealt with during those two years was nothing less than horrifying to my autistic sensibilities. On top of precision timekeeping to do with commuting, childminders and parenting, I had a job that required dealing with the minutae of 230 complicated client files, simultaneously. Then, by evening, I dealt with serious injury claimants where every detail of how I conducted lengthy interviews and carried out detailed record keeping could make a considerable long-term difference to the future income and quality of life of people whose lives had already been shot-through by the very worst ordeals imaginable.

Added to this, I was responsible for getting myself and my daughter from A to B to C to D to a quite hair-raising schedule, and also intact, every singe day with no respite (whilst trying not to let the road traffic horrors of those personal injury interviews I conducted in the evenings flash before my eyes as I ploughed my car back into the heavy traffic). I was desperately struggling to make ends meet, seeking advice to avoid house repossession, taking in lodgers, filling in tax returns, trying to make my books balance, all around the edges of this and all the numerous other things it takes to be a parent and still go out to work. Its no exaggeration to say I was “petrified” of nearly everything going on in my life at the time; it all overwhelmed me a hundred times more than suggested by the stoic face I was trying to present to the world and there was no one I could really talk to about any of it. Inevitably, I was experiencing sleepless nights, all the time, and operating on pure adrenalin, which only made my executive skills the worse; exposing to the light well mimicked, long-time faked “coolness” and “calmness” and “I’m so organised-ness”…so the cracks were really beginning to show, comments to be made, my world to spin, leading to a degree of chaos that is a living nightmare to pretty much anyone on the spectrum since (as alluded to above) a high degree of calm and routine is the only way we know how to function.

In fact, my world literally began to spin as I soon began to experience frequent dizzy spells, lightheadedness, numbness, lapse of memory, waves of overwhelming emotions, often during the working day…and then the debilitating pain came in, so strong and bewildering I was eventually forced to give up work.

So, you could say, my exposé was upon me: over 30 years of pretending to be mostly strong in a skillset that was, actually, my weakest had come to claim its pay-back.

Because it was a skillset where it took every iota of my energy and focus to perform well; something far more attainable as the geek at school, able to study hard in quiet rooms and produce good results in silently conducted exams, than now with so many eyes and dependencies upon me, so much to loose, such a huge open-plan and highly distracting corporate office, so many noisy colleagues sat at close quarters under bright lights, scrutinising my every move and, it sometimes felt like, willing me to fail and, everywhere I looked, more executive tasks piling up on top of each other screaming their priority at me. Of course, having autistic sensory processing disorder in spadeloads (see my last post) didn’t help me one bit because bright flourescent strip lights, so much chatter (nearly everybody in the massive floor spent 80% of their time in the phone and a lot of it was high-adrenalin stuff, which I can feel as a frequency in the highly-charged atmosphere), computer monitors, massive windows and so on had already overloaded my nervous system before I had even sat down for an 8-hour shift at my desk. By the way, sensory overload can massively reduce my executive functioning abilities, which is a classic autistic “thing”, which is why shopping malls and airports quite often lead to burnout or meltdown….and days and days of physical pain afterwards!

So I crashed in every which way.

Since then, looking back, I clearly see how I have created a world that suits me and the way I am wired; a world almost devoid of executive function requirements but never more so than in this last year. Those EF tasks that I perform are mostly to my own tune; and that very-much suits me better.

Slowly and steadily I have delegated EF tasks to my husband or ducked out of demanding scenarios altogether, my tax return and the need to balance the books every now and again, to order the groceries online, plan meals and arrange the occasional trip away being the last remainers. It was telling, as those years went on, how my stomach would churn a little more each time I sat down to face the more arduous tasks from that list…how on earth had I coped with a dozen more EF tasks per day back then than I now face in a month or longer? It was as though the “use them or loose them” principle had rang true so that, now I had volunteered to surrender those hard-won skills, there was almost no going back; or, when I went back into them, I felt utterly handicapped…so starkly so I was astonished it had never shown up before.

In fact, for quite a long time, I assumed I had “lost” these skills, as if my brain had started to melt, in fact I felt a degree of panic coming over me… but now I am more convinced than ever that I never really had them in the first place. What I had was a convincing overlay; one that had even convinced me for a very long time but it never really took root, which is why it succumbed to the pressure it was put under. It was never really real; I had faked it till I made it and spent every single moment of every day at work camouflaging myself to look as though I was coping well but it the illusion had finally buckled and I had, initially, tipped over with it…until I realised that the “me” that identified with those sort of tasks wasn’t me at all; I have a far different skillset, one that has very little to do with executive abilities but which is of value in its own perfect way.

As in, those EF skills never came naturally to autistic me, I had always had the shortfall of them but had, ironically, picked them out to be my strong suit in an attempt to normalise myself in a dominantly neurotypical world where they were, apparently, the currency that would allow me to fit in and get by. With the beauty of hindsight (and now realising my autism), it was as ludicrous and tragic as if someone afraid of heights had chosen to become a tightrope walker; through practice, we can do pretty much anything but whether it is natural, or sustainable, is another matter….and probably not if it puts us at such a disadvantage that we are depleted even before we do anything else of a day. So, I had overcompensated to the nth and then assumed these were the very best I had to offer to the world as my most viable skillset; perhaps some hidden part of me even thought it could distract attention from my shortfalls by becoming good at what was my lesser strength. Whatever it was, it certainly wasn’t sustainable because I was putting myself at a daily disadvantage…as so many autistic people do when they are forced to fit in on other people’s terms.

In other words, I was always handicapped in this EF regard and this was never my strong suit, but I had done a stirling job of mimicking what was expected of me, for so many years, that I even convinced myself I was good at these things and that I wanted to do them, was happy to define myself by any successes I had at doing them (and, of course, take the deep, personal body-blow when I did poorly) and to make this my identity, instead of what was far more real and gifted (if more asbtract…and yes hidden) on the inside. In a sense, I really was good at them in the end…because all that having to try (rather than things coming naturally) had made me such a good organiser, a fantastic doer, a meticulous time manager, an adept multitasker etc, but at what cost to me? I had become a nervous wreck. That final burnout had caused me to become less executively strong than ever because, now, I was almost phobic about EF tasks or my need to avoid them. I admit, I now avoid anything that looks like it might require even a small amount of EF ability like the plague, which has made my choices fairly limited for the last handful of years; but who can blame me?

Just imagine how hard it has been, copying what others do but never finding it natural, always left wide awake at night wondering “what did I slip up on, what important thing have I forgotten to do?” How draining was it to never feel that these tasks were second nature; always feeling like they were an unconvincing overlay, an outwardly projected suit of behaviour that was about to develop cracks, an exposé waiting to happen. This is what my first few decades felt like beneath the surface of my adopted calm, eroding away at my health the whole time, and (from what I read) it is a classically female response to Aspergers to go though this…sometimes for decades, or until the body shouts “stop”!

So, as some sort of compensation, its been as though I let all that EF go these last few years, and, as I said, never more so than this last year with just two of us at home, locked-down in our home, nothing much to take care of anymore except balancing the bank account, ordering some food, so I have well-and-truly fallen off the horse and not got back onto it quickly enough to keep the skillset going (there’s another clue…how many people that are not autistic have to practice EF skills to hold on to them?) I began to realise, part way through last year, that I was rapidly losing this skillset inch by steady inch, letting it all slip away from me faster than ever before, but then I never quite had the incentive to go after it…because, why did I need it if I can get by most of them time without using such skills at all? If I never really have to deal with people very much (and seldom strangers), or to juggle a complicated diary, or to “go to work” in a conventional sense, or to meet other people’s expectations, or to fill in forms, or to even go out to shops given things we need are delivered, or to have to explain or justfy yourself to anyone really, where is that incentive? Except…it makes it all soooo much harder when you, do, suddenly have to executive-function your day and its on days like this that you suddenly realise you need to hold on to at least some of these skills to get by at a minimal level…

So, today was very much the exception to my norm. It began with several parcels I had to return, all built up in a heap, so much wrapping and labelling to organise and, having tackled it at last, I was now determined to post them back to their various places, involving a trip to a post office though its been months… This, of course, required driving my car, which I hadn’t done for ages too, since our dog will no longer get into it. This in itself was enough to make me anxious, plus (in all seriousness) begin to question whether I know how to drive my car anymore or has the lack of familiarity and routine scrubbed it from the category labelled “second nature” in my head. As I lay in bed pondering this, it occurred to me I could far-better, more instinctively, remember driving my old car, with its gear box, which is the kind of car I drove for decades, than the relatively new automatic stood out on the drive…So, was this like a version of Alzheimers, where people tend to remember their oldest memories first and then scrub the rest? If so, it could be a problem and I seriously began to have nerves about taking my car on the road.

So, having built myself up into a minor stew about that, I braced myself to turn over the engine only to find the car wouldn’t start. Long story short, it required calling in on my “home start” insurance, so then I had to deal with talking to two people on the phone and found my words came out desperately muddled; I struggled to articulate the most simple of descriptions as to why I had called and heard it come out like some sort of robot trying to process a new language for the first time but not quite getting the syntax right…yes, it had been a very long while indeed since I last spoke to a stranger, or indeed anyone, on the phone and the whole escapade struck me as alien.

While I waited for the repair man to arrive, I found myself diving into a pile of other overdue executive tasks; why was this? In hindsight, I realised it was because I knew it had taken a lot out of me to do what I had already done so in for a penny in for a pound, I didn’t want to have to face this feeling again anytime soon so I may as well work though my list of avoided tasks. So I spoke to someone to get the deadline on all my returns extended whilst arranging yet another complicated return item, spoke to another company about a broken down appliance, cleared some junk that we no longer use into storage boxes and moved them to our garage and, finally, renewed my driving licence online including the need to navigate the application form and root out my passport, old license and national insurance number (things I seldom have to put my hands on) which meant facing that place I never go near any more, my filing cabinet, arranged by someone I no longer relate to (an earlier format of me) so that took some time. By the way, application forms can now flummox me for days, partly because so many of the questions seem so arbitrary or not as cut-and-dried “yes” or “no” as they often imply since there are often multiple possible responses and shades in between, a scenario that can completely stall my ability to process them at all. Don’t even get me started on small print and any of those boxes that want you to confirm you agree and have understood fully…

By the time I had done all this and the car had been sorted (luckily, my husband was still at home when the repair guy came so I was able to get him to go outside to deal with him) I was exhausted; I mean flat out drained of all stamina like I had climbed up Everest carrying a pack the size of another person, I felt truly jelly legged. But most of all I felt oddly scrambled in my head, as though a fistful of synapses had burned out, my voice had become flat and my husband had developed that tell-tale twitchiness he always gets around me when he thinks I’m in a “scary mood” so I could tell he thought I was in some sort of funk with him or was being bad-temperedly “short” in my responses. I wasn’t especially…I just wasn’t coping very well with any of this, almost to the point of meltdown, nor was I coping well with his desire to chatter on at me while I tried to complete the driving license application. As I owned up to myself just how much I was struggling to divide my focus between both it and him, I realised how many YEARS I had been put through the pains of tackling EF tasks with a chattering child in the vicinity, or in an open plan office, or with bosses that want to stand over you as you work…because, I now realise, I JUST CANT DO THIS STUFF whilst attempting to do anything else at the same time, its as though my brain won’t function at all with that much pressure and division of tasks!!!!!!

Yes this, it turns out, is yet another classic EF weak spot for so many people on the spectrum; we do not multitask and it can take all our energy, and then some, to tackle EF tasks and therefore if we act as though we are utterly burned out afterwards, as though we have tackled way more than it seems, its because, to us, it feels as though we have!

My lack of humour, the dead pan face, flat voice, shortness of my responses…and my husband’s reactions to me as though I have grown horns…made me realise how often I was accused of being bad tempered or scary or stern by family members and work colleagues over the years. I was only, last night, reading an account from Christine Lion in the book I am thoroughly enjoying “Finding Your Autistic Superpower” in which she describes how work colleagues consider her “a cold bitch” when really she is just in autistic work mode; and I think that probably happened to me a lot too, certainly in my first proper job where I managed staff and had a lot on my plate. Yes, also at school, where I was frequently labelled a stuck up snob. Oh, and as a parent at times when there was way too much going on for me to handle all the EF tasks I was attempting to juggle and be “nice mummy” all at the same time; the classic phrase I would always hear was “You’ve changed!”, once again, as if I had suddenly sprouted horns. It was never that I was the horrible person they thought I was but, rather, that I was having to redirect all and I mean ALL of my available mental, energetic and emotional resources at whatever task I had in hand, and had NOTHING whatsoever left over for anyone else…certainly nothing to spare for social interaction or pleasantries. Realising this about myself has enabled me to reappraise, and more greatly understand, my own mother who I can see clearly was on the spectrum and not always cut-out to be the parent of four that she found herself to be!

Looking back, all those years of being misconstrued only added yet another layer of pressure on top of the heinous struggle of EF that was already far too real and inhibiting to be borne and yet so unrelatable to most of the people all around me that it was never something I felt I could share or admit to. Not least because I came across as just so capable, so organised, so in charge of every situation, so (favourite word) “conscientious”…yes, all of that, because OVERCOMPENSATION had become my middle name!

So, these thoughts, in their rawest form, felt important to capture today as they pass through because who knows (hopefully) how long before I get to experience them again…at least if I have any say in the matter.

The beauty of hindsight helps me appreciate what has been so very hard and alien to me all these years and how well I have done in spite of it all. I can now show a huge amount of compassion to myself for what this put me through, not to mention awe at the way I forced my most handicapped area out into life’s arena in an attempt to pass it off as my very strength. Meanwhile, I vow to approach the next few years with the wisdom to model life on my (innumerable) natural strengths and not to overly set out to create, or attract, more of an EF requirement in my life than I have to; so, no signing up to any committees or anything like that…and also grateful that we have designed our simple lifestyle to be so undemanding on a day-to-day basis. If this is one of the factors keeping me from growing my art business (yes, freely admitted to) then so be it; I would much rather enjoy my art!

In fact, a few hours of EF tasks can knock me off my art practice like being pushed off my unicorn; for instance, I almost completely lost my ability to get on with my painting today…until I vented it all out of me in this post and, even then, my art felt pretty compromised because I was so out of sorts, including physical pain that simply wasn’t there this morning.

Art generates its own executive tasks but they are a kind I enjoy and which don’t feel at all threatening, besides they are in proportion to the task and wholly useful, not the run-away executive nightmare that much of modern neuroptypcially-devised life seems to be to me; so much bureaucracy designed to administer or police more expressions of bureacracy, yurgh! I also enjoy the executive side of being the one who shops for ingredients and then cooks for our family, which I take seriously and which results in well planned, nutritious meals (though even this EF task can fall into complete array when I am at burnout point…and then, suddenly, we are on beans on toast). Again, these are tasks I don’t mind…and, I guess, a big point in their favour is that I am the one who sets them!

Yes, EF tasks will always show up, they are a fairly unavoidable part of life but there are many that, in my mature wisdom, I now scorn to have dictate to me and there are only ever degrees to which we have to engage, also better choices we can make (if we dare to) when we are aware of any weaknesses we have; there really is no imperative to force ourselves to handle more than comes naturally. If we have that weakness and an aspect of life is making us miserable or even ill, its time to delegate or make our apologies, for the sake of our overall wellbeing, and I would insist that this is perfectly within our rights as an autistic person, even at work, since executive struggle is a well-recognised trait (though I wonder if I would have dared to call on this if I had realised about my autism when I was still at work…)

Meanwhile, very basic tools, such as a handwritten weekly planner in plain sight (I never remember to check my online one…another EF weakness of mine is “out of sight, out of mind”…) plus written down notes/reminders to myself on every imaginable subject really help me to get by. Making my filing systems far more intuitive (and creating some sort of master key to where things are stored) is an intention for this year because, based on last year, I suspect my strengths in this area are only going to slide the more given how little energy I choose to continue giving to them; they already had my life-blood for too many years and, these days, I choose to live far more comfortably to my autistic prototype, complete with all its charming, if disorganised, foibles.

4 thoughts on “Executive function…reappraised

  1. Oh, I relate entirely! Anything involving a phone call! So hard! Social communication processing is not possible when our executive functioning is over taxed. It’s in this area, executive functioning and social communication processing, that I can consider autism as a disability. These are the areas where I need accommodation (well, sensory processing, too.).


    1. Something about the very straightforward way you commented helped me to type myself a short memo, almost the only handbook I need in life really (for other people and to remind myself):

      “I have

      – executive functioning challenges

      – social communication processing challenges

      – sensory processing challenges

      so, in these areas, I need some accomodation.”

      I honestly think that the bulk of my “problems” have been that I have been drowing in overcomplications to do with these 3 things…all my life…partly because I didn’t even realise I was autistic for all those years. I could almost boil everything back down to these 3 things and it also means I can navigate the world easier to have these on some sort of reminder note I keep in plain sight, so thank you for that…something just clicked into place today!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’m so glad! The thing is…. our autistic traits are directly responsible for our gifts! And we’re so smart and talented and get such good feedback that it can be hard to sometimes remember that our other autistic traits also lead directly to our areas of disability! When I remind myself that I need accommodation in those ways, it truly helps and allows myself to take it easier and slower. Glad that clicked for you, too!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. So true, and also (something I struggle with) so hard for those who see our gifts to accept that we have disabilities…I’ve had people (especially those who consider they know me well…from the years when I was so good at camouflaging my traits to seem “typical”) virtually shake their heads and try to tell me “no you’re wrong” or at least exagerating, as though being autistic is something I just decided to call myself one day like trying on a new hat!


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