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Elements of Executive Function: Road Trip Without a Map7 min read

Elements of Executive Function: The Road Trip Without a Map

The following list is taken from the website, LD Online. [Format modified for readability.]

*Inhibition - The ability to stop one’s own behavior at the appro­priate time, including stop­ping actions and thoughts. The flip side of inhi­bi­tion is impul­sivity; if you have weak ability to stop your­self from acting on your impulses, then you are “impul­sive.”

When Aunt Sue called, it would have made sense to tell her, “Let me check the cal­endar first. It sounds great, but I just need to look at every­body’s sched­ules before I commit the whole family.”

*Shift — The ability to move freely from one sit­u­a­tion to another and to think flex­ibly in order to respond appro­pri­ately to the sit­u­a­tion.

When the ques­tion emerged regarding who would watch the cats, Robin was stymied. Her hus­band, on the other hand, began gen­er­ating pos­sible solu­tions and was able to solve the problem rel­a­tively easily.

Emotional Control — The ability to mod­u­late emo­tional responses by bringing rational thought to bear on feel­ings.

The example here is Robin’s anger when con­fronted with her own impul­sive behavior in com­mit­ting to the family before checking out the dates: “Why are you all being so neg­a­tive?”

Initiation — The ability to begin a task or activity and to inde­pen­dently gen­erate ideas, responses, or problem-solving strate­gies.

Robin thought about calling to check on the date of the reunion, but she just didn’t get around to it until her hus­band ini­ti­ated the process.

*Working memory — The capacity to hold infor­ma­tion in mind for the pur­pose of com­pleting a task.

Robin could not keep the dates of the reunion in her head long enough to put them on the cal­endar after her ini­tial phone call from Aunt Sue.

*Planning/Organization — The ability to manage cur­rent and future- ori­ented task demands.

In this case, Robin lacked the ability to sys­tem­at­i­cally think about what the family would need to be ready for the trip and to get to the intended place at the intended time with their needs cared for along the way.

*Organization of Materials — The ability to impose order on work, play, and storage spaces.

It was Robin’s job to orga­nize the things needed for the trip. However, she just piled things into the car rather than sys­tem­at­i­cally making check­lists and orga­nizing things so impor­tant items would be easily acces­sible, the space would be used effi­ciently, and that people and “stuff” would be orderly and com­fort­able in the car.

Self-Monitoring - The ability to mon­itor one’s own per­for­mance and to mea­sure it against some stan­dard of what is needed or expected.

Despite the fact that they’re off to Missouri without knowing how to get there, with almost no plan­ning for what will happen along the way, and without a map, Robin does not under­stand why her hus­band is so upset.

Logistical

Okay, this is awe­some! For years I’ve been using the word “logis­tical” to describe the inun­da­tion of details involved in plan­ning and car­rying out cer­tain types of activity.

My sub­jec­tive expe­ri­ence is that I’ve been defeated by the logis­tics, swamped by a flood of details that I can’t seem to col­late. Even though I know that in many cases I can do the task and achieve the results, I will pay a price in stress and the atten­dant exhaus­tion and emo­tional back­lash.

Because I am aware of these things, I’ve man­aged to arrange my day-to-day life in ways that min­i­mize the need for me to employ exec­u­tive func­tion. I’ve also put a red flag on the instances in which I will not be able to avoid com­plex tasks which require exec­u­tive func­tion.

The list really helped me in iden­ti­fying the aspects of exec­u­tive func­tion that I’m good at —Emotional Control, Initiation, and Self-Monitoring; and also to better define and under­stand the areas in which I’m likely to mal­func­tion. These are the ones in the list I’ve notated with an asterisk.

I’ll review my insights into each one, below:

Inhibition: This one hap­pens all the time in social sit­u­a­tions. I simply can’t seem to learn to pause and step back for a moment before I respond. I believe this is because I’m in “self-defense” mode, actively sup­pressing my anx­iety and my nat­ural reac­tions to painful stimuli.

Shift: Sometimes I am good at shifting focus from task to task, but in cases where I’ve got a careful con­struct in place of how things should be in order for me to func­tion that I sud­denly dis­cover is incom­plete, I can’t just work out a “plug-in.”

I have to demolish the whole con­struct and re-do it to include the missing ele­ment. There is often a moment of “blanking out” at the point where I realize that my con­struct or plan is insuf­fi­cient– and I tend to have an emo­tional reac­tion of bewil­der­ment and a kind of ver­tigo. I’ve nick­named this feeling, “losing the uni­verse.”

Working Memory: My memory is good if it’s for one thing at a time. Multiple tracks defeat me. I expe­ri­ence this as one item dri­ving another out of my mind. I can remember someone’s name, or some future event, for only as long as I’m not required to remember some other thing.

I have had lim­ited suc­cess with arranging my daily life in ways that allow me to tackle things one at a time. Establishing a pretty simple and nearly-minimalist lifestyle has been very ben­e­fi­cial. Uncluttering the world around me allows me a lot of elbow room to sort things out and take my time.

Planning and Organization: Again, I can sort of do this, but with great strain. My NT friends tend to sneer at the amount of sheer dis­com­fort I exhibit when I’m trying to use this type of exec­u­tive func­tion. I tend to care­fully work things out on my own before trying to coor­di­nate with other people in any shared activity that requires pre-planning.

This prac­tice often cre­ates a problem when I have to inte­grate my arrange­ments with other par­tic­i­pants. They take things for granted that I can’t afford to take for granted, and they dis­miss my arrange­ments when they differ from their own without real­izing how con­fusing it is for me.

I so often wish that I didn’t have to watch their lips curl and hear them snort with exas­per­a­tion and deri­sion. I want to say, “Just give me a minute, and help me re-organize my under­standing.”

Organization of Materials: This one prob­ably has the biggest impact on me. I’ve tried many dif­ferent approaches, but even with sev­eral very work­able sys­tems in place, I still will give up on many ven­tures because I get over­whelmed.

My best suc­cess has been in putting together pre-packed totes for recre­ational things like hiking and skiing. For road trips I rely on lists, and I keep the ones I’ve made pre­vi­ously for spe­cific events and con­tin­u­ally update them. I’ve even gotten friends to share their lists with me, so that I can com­pare and use them to refine my own.

I think my take-away from all this is simple— the break­through under­standing for me is this: I finally real­ized that I simply can’t improve my exec­u­tive func­tion­ality.

However, I can come up with work-arounds as sub­sti­tutes.

They may be awk­ward, time-consuming, and sometimes-complicated, but they allow me to get along. Without my work-arounds, I would simply be inca­pable of many tasks and activ­i­ties that other people find to be easy and ordi­nary.

There is an enor­mous sense of freedom and relief in let­ting go of the expec­ta­tion that if I just keep on trying, I will be able to finally achieve cer­tain func­tion­al­i­ties. I stopped thinking of them as skills when I real­ized that they are actu­ally abil­i­ties. Abilities can’t be learned; they are built in. Or else they are not.

Now I have the freedom to pur­pose­fully use my mind to figure out how to accom­plish a task or achieve a goal by some dif­ferent method.

I can fig­u­ra­tively find levers, step-stools, screw­drivers, and wrenches to use as tools. Even if other people can just roll the boul­ders out of the way with just their mus­cles, are tall enough to reach the high shelves, can turn the screws and bolts with nothing but their fin­gers– that doesn’t mean that I can’t accom­plish the same feats. I just need to assemble the right uten­sils.

I have my own per­mis­sion to be matter-of-fact about my lim­i­ta­tions. A per­fect example might be feeling frus­tra­tion and shame over being too short to reach the top shelves in the gro­cery store, but at the same time feeling too embar­rassed to carry a step-stool or ask some-one tall for help.

The analogy breaks down a bit here, because no-one would crit­i­cize a short person for not being able to reach the shelf and tell them that they need to grow taller or blame them for not being taller. They would look at the shelf and the short person, and imme­di­ately under­stand the pur­pose of the step-stool, in a very matter-of-fact kind of way.

It doesn’t work that way with autism, and I wish I knew why not.

On the other hand, it really is a waste of time to be both­ered by not knowing why.
Nah, I’ll just keep on finding ever-better work-arounds, and designing even lighter and more com­pact folding step-stools to carry around with me so I can reach all the high shelves.

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8 Comments

  1. Hello,

    didn’t under­stand why LD Online didn’t make the format more acces­sible for those who live with exec­u­tive dys­func­tion…

    Very glad you did.

    So the people in the story/study are Robin and Aunt Sue; and Robin is going on a trip?

    1. Author

      Hi Adelaide… I thought the LD web­site was pretty acces­sible since I found it with Google search term “exec­u­tive func­tion.” Yes the author told a story about a family to illus­trate the nature of exec­u­tive func­tion. Sorry to say, I didn’t pay much atten­tion to the names of the people.….
      I’m really glad you like my piece, and I’m always delighted when people com­ment! Thanks!

      1. Stinkyzen:

        Thank you again for expressing what you mean by acces­sible.

        “Easy to find for people who want it” — I was thinking more of the form and maybe some of the words which were not nec­es­sarily plain or easy.

        Another exec­u­tive func­tion resource going around the Internet is the story of a stu­dent and the things they do in a day and the labour they put into exec­u­tive func­tioning — form 7am to 7pm and espe­cially through the school day — all the cog­ni­tive and social and emo­tional load.

        And Robin piling things into the car would be very relat­able.

        Initiation and self-monitoring I find really tough — and emo­tional con­trol is the most obvious [when it goes wrong].

  2. And great point about the dif­fer­ences between skills and abil­i­ties:

    “My best suc­cess has been in putting together pre-packed totes for recre­ational things like hiking and skiing. For road trips I rely on lists, and I keep the ones I’ve made pre­vi­ously for spe­cific events and con­tin­u­ally update them. I’ve even gotten friends to share their lists with me, so that I can com­pare and use them to refine my own.

    I think my take-away from all this is simple— the break­through under­standing for me is this: I finally real­ized that I simply can’t improve my exec­u­tive func­tion­ality.

    However, I can come up with work-arounds as sub­sti­tutes.

    They may be awk­ward, time-consuming, and sometimes-complicated, but they allow me to get along. Without my work-arounds, I would simply be inca­pable of many tasks and activ­i­ties that other people find to be easy and ordi­nary.

    There is an enor­mous sense of freedom and relief in let­ting go of the expec­ta­tion that if I just keep on trying, I will be able to finally achieve cer­tain func­tion­al­i­ties. I stopped thinking of them as skills when I real­ized that they are actu­ally abil­i­ties. Abilities can’t be learned; they are built in. Or else they are not.”

  3. I like this very much. The work arounds for abil­i­ties I don’t have. Many people think I don’t care but that is So not true.

  4. You wrote: “It doesn’t work that way with autism, and I wish I knew why not.”

    I’m the oppo­site. I wish I under­stood why it did work that way for NTs, and how. Because it just doesn’t make any sense. They jump to con­clu­sions in the absence of con­clu­sive evi­dence, and risk error every time.

    I find it mad­dening. I wish NTs would just stop doing that.

    1. Author

      I like your twist on the way you under­stood my point. I wouldn’t have thought of reverse engi­neering the manner and method of assump­tions in the way that you did. What I find even more mad­dening is when I can tell that someone is making an assump­tion about me based on some­thing that I did or said, and I simply have no clue what is going on. (Other than to know, once again, that I have failed to deci­pher the code-of-the-day.)

      1. Lol! Love it!
        With your per­mis­sion, I will borrow that and use it with a slight mod;

        Once again, I have failed to deci­pher the *unde­fined yet somehow under­stood by NT’s* code-of-the-day!

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