I’ve been wanting to write a blog post about executive function for several weeks. The funny thing is, compiling the information and the writing such a post requires significant executive functioning effort, and I haven’t been able to muster it. Fitting!
Executive function (EF) is hard to explain in a simple way because it does so many things. Some call it the command center of the brain – it is responsible for things like decision making, planning, problem solving, attention, working memory, verbal reasoning, transitioning, time management, and more.
Take for example one ordinary task that many people do almost every day: making dinner. There are so many executive functioning tasks just in making a simple dinner it’s difficult to list them all, but they would include: deciding what to prepare, determining which ingredients are needed, locating them all, calculating how much time each component (also the entire meal) will take to make, measuring or chopping ingredients, doing everything in the proper order, paying attention so that nothing is underdone or overcooked, dealing with distractions, serving appropriate portion sizes, locating appropriate plates/bowls/flatware….
Do you still have the energy to eat?
Cooking dinner is a relatable example, which is why I used it – lots of neurotypical people find preparing a meal to be a bit taxing, at least sometimes. But if you are neurotypical, try to imagine if nearly everything about your day was that labor-intensive for your brain. Taking a shower, getting dressed, making plans for the day, keeping yourself (and everyone in your care) fed, tidying up, and so on.
Having some executive function challenges is common to autistic people, but also to other atypical neurologies, such as ADD/ADHD, depression, and some learning disorders.
Image is a basket full of white plastic spoons, and over that are the words, “Everything that I commit to has to be considered in the bigger picture of whether I will likely have the energy to do it that day, week, month.”
There’s a popular metaphor that a lot of disabled people refer to called Spoon Theory. I’m aware that not everyone loves this metaphor, but it’s so well known it’s worth knowing about because you will probably come across it eventually. Spoon Theory was invented by a woman with lupus to explain to her able-bodied friend how she must conserve her energy in thoughtful ways, because she does not have an unlimited amount, and every single thing she does has a cost. The disabled person has a finite number of spoons to “spend” in a day, and depending on their disability, each physical task, executive functioning task, social interaction, sensory experience, and so on – will deplete their number of spoons.
There’s another really good metaphor that an autistic person came up with, and I think people with ADHD will also relate closely to this, called Splines Theory. The phrase “reticulating splines” is a gamer inside joke – a made-up term that some old computer games used for their load screens. Splines Theory aims to explain why autistic people may need a lot of time and energy to “load” a new task, and may then become hyper focused on the task, and have a difficult/impossible time dealing with interruptions or moving onto another task.
I feel that in the past year I reached a state some call “autistic burnout,” which is what precipitated my seeking a diagnosis and more support. I sometimes feel like my executive function has collapsed. It’s like a toddler in a meltdown who goes limp-noodle and suddenly weighs a thousand pounds. It’s like a dog on a leash who refuses to go another step and seems to turn his body into stone. I stubbornly believe I can do more, but my brain says NOPE. NOT DOING THAT.
Other times it rallies and I can do the thing, and I feel like I’m totally doing it, but then my brain collapses. It takes me hours sometimes to recover from ordinary tasks or outings that are not physically or mentally taxing in better days. But right now, they just are.
I am now throwing all of the self care resources in the book at myself in order to get out of survival mode, or what my therapist has described as “the basement level” of functioning. I am taking care of my family and myself in a basic way, and I’m handling some responsibilities on top of that like illustration work and the co-op startup, but I am tired all the time and EVERY thing I do takes tremendous effort. That includes things I really want to do, which is so frustrating.
Even though I don’t have a physical disability, the concept of limited resources feels all too real to me at this time in my life. If I go to a playdate in the morning, I will not be able to go grocery shopping in the afternoon. If I have a meeting scheduled for the evening, I have to structure my day so that I am not doing much before then. Every thing that I commit to has to be considered in the bigger picture of whether I will likely have the energy, the spoons if you will, to do it that day, week, month.
At the same time, becoming aware of my executive functioning challenges gives me new hope. So many times in my life I’ve beat myself up for failures big and small: why couldn’t I hack it at art school? Why didn’t I do more in college? Why couldn’t I do better as a faux finishing contractor? Why aren’t I earning a decent living as an illustrator? Now I have this fuller knowledge of myself that I can use to build upon my strengths and stop trying to force myself to operate in ways that are not good for me.
I am now seeking help in various ways, but I also have to face the stark reality that I cannot rush a recovery from burnout. The whole point of this is that I need to slow down and have been rushing and pushing too much. Working with my neurology instead of fighting it is a key to moving forward but I am still figuring out how exactly to do that.