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

 

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