If someone asked me what I find most challenging about being autistic, I would say my executive function impairments.
Every area of our daily life is affected by executive functioning. It is something that most people take for granted and it is only when it’s impaired that we start to become aware of its importance.
Executive functioning is an umbrella term for a number of cognitive processes such as working memory, planning, flexibility of thought, organisation, impulse control, initiating and monitoring actions. Executive functioning impairments are well documented in research literature for children but as with most areas of autism research when you start to look at adults the literature becomes more scant. Those of us who engage with the online autistic community however, will be well aware that autistic adults often struggle in this area too.
For a detailed blog series about executive functioning see the blog musingsofanaspie.com.
In my case, I have noticed more problems since I started a family. Those of us who have kids at school will understand exactly what I mean. So many small jobs that you need to deal with. E.g. pay £1 for this, £2 for that. Remember violin on this day, PE kit on another day. Not to mention the kids social lives. Even my autistic children have busier social lives than me. I now have to manage three diaries not just my own, (four actually, as I organise a lot of my husband’s non work engagements).
Has my executive functioning got worse or is it just the increasing demands on me now I’m a mother? Most likely it is the latter. The situation has become a vicious circle. I gradually was getting more and more stressed. Stress affects executive functioning, which then means I make more mistakes, which in turn leads to more stress. Eventually the stress becomes intolerable and that is when my anxiety symptoms return.
The photo above is a good example of how my executive functioning problems manifest. Yes, that is 20 pints of milk in my fridge and yes we are only a family of four. I have similar amounts of diet coke in my other fridge, yet I have no fresh bread. Shopping is challenging for me (I have physical impairments as well as my cognitive ones). I have strategies which mitigate these problems to some extent, including a huge freezer which has meat, fruit, veg and bread so we will never go hungry. However the extra work involved in compensating for these cognitive impairments is, in my opinion, one reason why so many autistic people are anxious. Long term stress can lead to eventual mental health problems.
Interestingly, I find work much less stressful than home life. Partly because in my previous job I used to focus on only one project at a time. It is the multi-tasking that comes with parenting that is my greatest challenge.
As I have been writing this post, a reminder came up on my phone for a doctor’s appointment. My heart sank as I have promised the children a day in the house (after a busy day out yesterday) and they do not like last minute changes to plans. I had forgotten what the appointment is for, so I called the doctor to see if they knew. As luck would have it the appointment isn’t until tomorrow. If we look at this situation, there are three mistakes…
- Started by putting the appointment in calendar on the wrong day
- Promised children a day in without having tomorrow’s activities in my memory (despite frequent calendar checking)
- Forgot why I had booked the appointment
Luck meant that mistake number three meant I didn’t get the kids out of bed, drive them to the doctors only to find out I was there a day early.
I make many errors like this every single day and the result can be wasted hours driving to places I don’t need to be, or worse not going to places where I do need to be. That is why executive function is the part of autism that causes me the most problems. It can affect my reputation, when I make mistakes at work. It inconveniences family and friends (e.g. when I stand them up). But I’d say it is the number of mistakes rather than the outcome of them that is most trying. Some of my social encounters (particularly when socialising with people who aren’t autistic) can hurt me more, but those misunderstandings happen less frequently.
So for everyone else out there with a similar brain to mine, you are not alone. I think I will write a post about the strategies I use in the future. I will add it to my long list of potential future blog posts.