Executive Function – autism’s hidden struggle

Screen Shot 2019-09-11 at 12.12.29 PM.pngKnow that phrase “can’t walk and chew gum at the same time?” Welcome to the kind of autistic struggles we often don’t know we have.

My wife and I were walking, and I was navigating to a metro station while lugging a suitcase. She asked if I could look up whether a nearby bakery was closed. And I couldn’t.

“I can’t. I just . . . I just can’t. I’m pulling a heavy suitcase and trying to navigate, and I just . . . can’t look that up unless I stop — “

My poor wife. She puts up with a lot from me, with a lot of the autistic hurdles that I can’t always leap over. One of which is executive function.

I’m a different category of weird because I can and do articulate some of my autistic challenges, which not everyone on the spectrum can or will do. And not everyone faces the same struggles at similar levels.

For me, I can really struggle with executive function on task attention.

And it’s in silly, innocuous ways.

Sometimes it’s seamless: much to the annoyance of many others, I can easily be on my phone, process information, engage in conversation.

But if I’m carrying groceries while on a call, and for some reason I need to tack on an item like bringing in the paper, even if on the way — I just can’t suspend one of the tasks until one is done. I can’t really explain it, but my mind walls off my focus to ensure I finish what I’ve started before moving to something – even if urgent.

Just the other day, Mo asked if she could have a drink. And I did my best to reason with her.

“Honey, I have to finish emptying the dishwasher and put the dishes away so I can then empty the sink and load them into a clear dishwasher, at which point I’ll have an empty sink where I can get the pitcher out, stir up tea, get your clean cup, ice, and give it to you.”

It’s never easy.

My wife summed it to my 4-year-old best: “Daddy has trouble stopping what he’s doing to do something else, ok?”

So what helps?

— Knowing that we often approach tasks as 0 to 100% with little in-between

— Asking about our “availability” before asking for a favor or task

— Break things down into concrete sequences

— Take things off the plate before putting things on

 

My Autistic Advantage in Foreign Conversations

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There are two kinds of travelers: the ones who don’t care and enjoy their trips, and the ones who do care and enjoy their trips more.

If you’re in the “don’t care” bucket, I’m surprised you’re here, but hey, welcome anyway.

For you conscientious ones, not speaking the native language can be a foreboding, intimidating thing — it’s true in Paris, where you hardly have to be fluent in French, but it’s definitely worth your while to try.

And that scares a good few people.

Me? Eh, not so much.

Why?

I’m used to planning out and programming my conversations anyway.

I’m not socially savvy enough to just wing it, goodness no. Even in English and the US and A, I’m thinking ahead, observing patterns, deducing the right kind of transactional cadences to where I’m not going to work myself into an awkward spot.

So whilst in Paris, I found myself surprisingly at ease when needing to get by in French. Thank you, autism, for affording me the circumstance of practice.

For example:

I was waiting in line to buy a shirt. That was intentional — after letting people ahead of me go, I could listen to the conversations ahead of time. The sequence of what the cashier would ask. How the other customers would respond. What words I needed to listen for and how to answer (oui when asked “is that all?” and about “do you need a bag?”)

Just like I do in some unknowns in English, I planned what I needed to say, offered just enough up front to avert questions I wouldn’t understand — only this round, en française.

So yeah, maybe getting in a checkout line and skating through an order without the clerk deducing you were an American is a small thing, but I’m glad I’ve had enough practice being human to be human abroad.

Have you had a similar experience?

The Life Autistic in Paris

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What do you do with your otherness when you’re a world away?

Hey folks.

Sorry for the long pause – just got back from a weeklong stay in Paris, where I disconnected from work, social media, and the general fervor of life. A much needed anniversary trip for me and the missus, but it’s good to be back.

As I took this detour on The Life Autistic, I collected a lot of narratives along the way.

I’m looking through the travelogue from a different spectrum, the first time I’ve been wholly aboard after embracing my whole self.

The week sowed seeds for so many stories:

Why autistic people would have it good in French culture. 

How to blend in as a more normal human.

Braving the need for eye contact.

Making a six-step plan for even the simplest conversations in French.

How I can’t navigate while walking with bags.

The autistic advantage of being a tourist.

Defiantly Unique, but blending in.

How you’ll find the best burger in Paris at Goku Asian Canteen.

Planning through lines and rivers.

And just . . . so much more.

As I share mine too, I’d love to hear of more of your autistic experiences abroad.