What is Executive Functioning?

This is more directed to parents of neurodiverse kids than it is for adults. Sorry to my good, good friend for using a conversation to spark a blog post, but I suspect that you’ll be fine with it considering I’m talking about my experience.

Why targeting parents of neurodiverse kids? Well, executive functioning isn’t just an autism thing. But don’t worry, I’ll still give suggestions that are usable for those of us adults who suck at executive functioning.

Last but not least, if this becomes disconnected, it’s because I stopped in the middle to adult. I find this come up too often both in my personal life and in various other places to not start writing about it when I think. I find if I initiate in a lot of ways then I must complete the original task (noticeable exception is my still not written book, sadly). So this is an executive functioning self-accommodation!

Now that that’s done, let’s start with the meat.

So for the purposes of this blog, I’m using these criteria for Executive Functioning (here on – EF), which I got from LD Online.

  1. 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.”
  2. Shift – The ability to move freely from one situation to another and to think flexibly in order to respond appropriately to the situation.
  3. Emotional Control – The ability to modulate emotional responses by bringing rational thought to bear on feelings.
  4. Initiation – The ability to begin a task or activity and to independently generate ideas, responses, or problem-solving strategies.
  5. Working memory – The capacity to hold information in mind for the purpose of completing a task.
  6. Planning/Organization – The ability to manage current and future- oriented task demands.
  7. Organization of Materials – The ability to impose order on work, play, and storage spaces.
  8. Self-Monitoring – The ability to monitor one’s own performance and to measure it against some standard of what is needed or expected.

As you can see, EF covers a lot of areas.. Some people only have issues with only a few EF areas. Other people, like me, have difficulty in most (or all) areas. I don’t really have impulse issues, but probably because I lack initiation to act impulsively.

So to go into a little background based off my conversation earlier. In school, my teachers always did this really awesome thing of putting the assignment on the board for all students to copy into their planners. While I could write it down, I never remembered at home to reference it. This means planners were useless.. Utterly useless. So what I ended up doing instead was doing the homework in class while the teacher was teaching it. This is a great example of a self-accommodation that while worked in the moment did not do so good long term. You see, when I got to college, I couldn’t keep my work organized to remember to do homework. Not only that, high school work was not exactly difficult for me. College work is not exactly easy so I actually had to pay attention to the teacher. But this also meant I didn’t learn study skills or how to take notes. Both of which are incredibly important skills if you plan to graduate from college (which I didn’t).

While I recognize study skills are highly under taught for all students.. But even now, as a parent who has to adult, I still seriously lack a lot of required EF skills. I do have some tricks to make it appear that I’m relatively organized to outside people if they don’t look too close. I use alarms and reoccurring calendar events for most important things, like doctor’s appointments and school pickup time. Even for doctor’s appointments, I don’t just rely on the calendar, but also have each person’s patient portal send me an email a week in advance and 2 days in advance so it doesn’t come up suddenly.

But don’t be mistaken that EF is only about organizational skills. It’s more than that. Let me go back over the stuff I’ve listed here to give you a full picture.

  1. Doing homework in class
    • Organization of materials – because I struggled to check my planner, I often didn’t have what I needed to do my homework
    • Initiating – Checking my planner or just starting the homework I knew I had
    • Planning – While somewhat self explanatory, this included organizing longer assignments into workable chunks which I didn’t ever really do.
    • Working memory – Remembering that I had work to do until the last minute
  2. Reoccurring calendar events and alarms
    • Planning – Somewhat obvious again
    • Shifting – Prior emails help me to know when things are coming which can help me get into a proper mindset for appointments
    • Working memory – I can tell you right now that I know which child has an appointment next. I’m relatively certain of the month, but I have no idea of the date or time or even time of day.
    • Initiating – Well, kind of.. I don’t leave the doctor’s office without scheduling an appointment even if there’s not one needed for 3-6 months because of my initiation, or lack thereof.

I wish I could speak to emotional control.. But I’ve honestly not got that one down. I rely heavily on others whether they be friends or family. I just really struggle to recognize what’s bothering me. Even now, I know I have negative feelings and that it’s causing me to be snappy. However, without knowing what the negative feeling is or even what’s caused it, I can’t regulate them in any sustainable way. But don’t worry, I will talk to the husband about it. Once we’re able to know what the feelings are and what caused it, we should be able to come up with ways for me to calm down.

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So what to do? If you’re an adult, you likely already have some self-accommodations and assistive tech (even low tech) you use. But for a child, if you’re a parent, I highly recommend talking to your school about how to manage these areas. I especially recommend in early to mid-elementary school years having IEP goals to break down planning, organization of materials and self-monitoring. In my opinion, from my own experience, working memory, initiating and shifting are far more easily accommodated if you can plan and organize materials. The reason being that once planning and organizing are part of a routine, you can come up with a system of delivery that bypasses the latter three if needed. Once your child has planning, organization and self-monitoring mastered, your child’s team can add in goals for the other areas.

To wrap this up, I want to give an opinion of mine that I hope I’m not blasted for… I suspect that the appearance of disability, ie, how much someone can “pass” as neurotypical comes down to how well their executive functioning difficulties are managed. For instance, for an autistic person, if emotional regulation was easy to come by, then we could more readily recognize sensory over- or under-stimulation, and come up with remedies. Of course, there’s a negative side to that as well. The obvious is that passing should never be a goal. But there are other issues. I, personally, self-monitor to an extreme, holding myself to unrealistic expectations for my disability. This further exacerbates initiating and emotional control difficulties. So please don’t fall into the trap of expecting EF to solve everything. It’s just a really important life skill that must be taught in steps.

Photo by NapInterrupted

2 Responses

  1. Jen says:

    I was diagnosed under a year and a half ago. I made it through high school, and had learned that I could mind-map notes so I had either my notes from the book or the lecture that I could add items to in a way that made sense, including my questions and what others might have thought were random thoughts (that did, in my mind, connect, and acknowledging them in the notes helped me move on.

    Today I had to figure out how to deal with an insurance thing. Website was a bust. The phone talked about their wonderful site, which always put up a PDF of the pamphlet I got the web address from. Because I had to figure out the pre-approval, and because this might mean phone calls, and because I tend to reach the point of the day I can activate these brain functions tends to be around 7 PM or later… it’s been waiting a while.

    My mother, I have realized, was my aide. About 5 years ago she developed dementia, and she is severely physically disabled. I would normally manage to get some signal that it was time for the pills she needed to take 20-40 minutes before her brunch. I then had to remember to set the timer for when to give her lunch. And remember the signals to check on her. My father put a note on the fridge whiteboard yesterday, like every Tuesday, reminding me to check my prescriptions. He reminds me of my appointments. Since medical appointments are often the only time I go out (between Mom and physical disability issues)checking the calendar isn’t something it occurs to me to do. At least the events the one group I do things with once or twice a month does Facebook invites, though it was Dad who asked me if I wasn’t going to a farewell picnic for two people I adored from it. At it’s starting time.

    I have a lot of lists of steps for projects but I tend to keep making new lists as the weather and seasons and what I have for new projects change. I don’t get the satisfaction doing it on in the computer, but did start putting each sewing and other projects on index cards, so I can play with the order of the cards rather than send quite so many outdated sheets (that address which garments would fit the seasons) to the recycle bin.

    I love making things, and have wonderful things in the room next to me waiting.Knitting has become a stim for me, when I watch television. Though keeping a project that I can do when the show is intense can be an issue, when I also need ones that will eat up enough of my attention that things don’t become overwhelming as well. Add having a project at hand when watching TV with Dad and having one in my room… and that leads to a lot of active projects.

    And not only have I missed important episodes of TV shows I was looking forward to, I have many times (say, 2-3 times a year) left to get a drink during a commercial break of a “just wait until the last 5 minutes!” shows- even ones that were advertised as such- and come back to find the TV on that channel 2 hours later…

    Just as I would, in the brief time I’ve lived away from home, sit down to do something in the 5 minutes before the dorm cafeterias started serving and regain awareness of time after they closed. And a lot of other problems. It took living at home, having a professor for a father and on the campus I ended up at, reminders from my parents (well, asking me about what I had that night) and having accommodations based on my chronic illnesses and ADHD for me to manage. And a decade later I’m still with them, and have managed to go with Mom to the ER after the doctor said the ambulance was justified, dealt with all the paperwork, explained the diagnoses (one of which was counter-intuitive) to Dad, who could only get there as they were discharging her… yet am floored by “how do you find out what you do to arrange to get a dental crown?”

  2. Anne says:

    Thank you for sharing your insight, Jen. Enjoyed the personal perspective.

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