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.
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.