Executive functioning – this is an umbrella term that covers the ability to organise, sequence and prioritise. Although it may be neurologically led, if someone has difficulty with it the brain is very flexible and coping with it can be improved with helping strategies and practice.
Yesterday I lost track of priorities at work and went off on a sidetrack for a while, thinking in my head that right now this other job was more important, until my boss gently steered me back in the right direction. In my defence, I was in a different room at the time with a very different atmosphere and tasks so my head went off in a different direction, but she was right, I had gone there to look for something (which at the time was proving to be a little illusive), I should have done that and returned to the office once I’d found it and got back to the task in hand that was more deadline oriented. But I saw a colleague was struggling a bit with her task, one that I’m more familiar with myself, thought to myself, I can spare half an hour to help, but really, I couldn’t. I’d left my executive brief case at home, as I think of it now.
Lots of people have trouble with executive functioning, not only those on the autistic spectrum, and even many neurotypicals without any other major issues. You can spot them a mile off. The ones who forget to turn up for appointments and if they do get there, they are often late and don’t have whatever they should have taken with them. They are highly disorganised. They flit from one task to another and forget to go back to finish the first one, they seem to do things in the wrong order of priority and then wonder why a day they had designated as a tidy up the house/office/car etc day, seems to have passed and they’ve done everything but the original planned task. They forget to pay bills and their finances can end up in a real pickle, not because they don’t have the money to pay, but purely because they can’t stay organised enough to make sure money is in the right place at the right time. Their office space and home tend to be untidy. And they don’t necessarily have the excuse of a family with children to add to the chaos.
A few weeks ago I was supposed to be having some self care me time, a day alone at home. However, when my husband arrived home, the kitchen work tops looked like a bomb had dropped. In fact the cupboard interiors were sorted and tidy, I just couldn’t quite keep myself on task enough to sort and dispose of the stuff I no longer wanted inside the cupboards. Easily solved with a large bin liner, but I needed someone to tell me to complete the process.
I can’t speak for anyone else, but for me poor executive functioning is highly frustrating. I know I’m bright enough to understand some fairly complex maths and science, but I have trouble keeping myself on task. I am great at remembering birthdays and anniversaries, but I rarely manage to get a card in the post in time. To be honest, I remember it’s a birthday on the actual day, rarely before. The date triggers it for me not the dates before it. Big confession, I didn’t send a single Christmas card this year. Not for lack of intention, it was just that Christmas seemed to arrive so fast once December got started and I never forced myself to sit down and do it.
The thing is, I like order. I feel calmer when things are ordered. I don’t like mess, I like to know what I’m doing, when, where and how. I can get pretty close to a meltdown if things change at short notice, I can’t quite cope with going with the flow or the impulsiveness of others. I have a huge number of ways of trying to keep tasks and paperwork in order at home, but I struggle to actually use my own systems at times.
So, what can we do to help ourselves and what can others also do to help us? I’m new to this knowledge and my experience isn’t wide, but I’m in my mid 50’s and I managed to arrive here somehow without causing the household to collapse and somehow I manage to do my job to completion most of the time. I’ve also managed to bring up 5 children to adulthood without any of them dying from neglect because I forgot to feed them and they are all successful well balanced adults. So these are my own personal tips based purely on my own life experience.
Use a diary, wall calendar and phone calendar app. All of them, together, all the time. Every day.
Lists. Make lists. Lots of them. Learn to love making the list and ticking the items off as you do them. But do then remember to take them with you. Paper or app, do what suits you, but definitely make lists. Not only of shopping to do, or things to pack for a holiday, but also of the steps in a task. Many people on the Autism spectrum are quite visual thinkers and learners and writing it down can make a difference.
Just for example, say you are wanting to go on holiday. This is a pretty massive organisational task for anyone. So, find a time when you aren’t rushed. Write down everything you think you need to do in order to arrive at your destination. It will seem huge to start with. But break it down. This is not necessarily everything but here’s a starting point. There’s the researching where you want to go and the type of holiday you want. Put that on one sheet. Then there’s the booking process, agent or online, there are steps you need to complete, that’s another sheet. There will be things to do once it’s booked but before you go, like book holiday from work, arrange pet care, car parking or train/coach to the airport if you are flying, check passport dates, visas, and so on. This is another sheet. What to pack. I have one general sheet that I use everytime, then I have a single sheet per person, and a final last minute general sheet for things to double check (tickets, passport, money etc) and things like toothbrush, daily toiletries that we may use on day of travel like my husbands shaver, toothbrushes, etc. I use large envelopes to put each stage of the journey in so I can find paperwork easily, at the car park, airport, hotel etc. Numbered in order of use.
Once you have your main categories on a page each, some of those tasks can be broken down into smaller steps, so use secondary sheets if you need to. Break each stage down into as many small steps as you need to but don’t worry about the order too much initially. Once it’s all in writing in front of you, then it’s time to get it in a logical order. You might have several drafts, but eventually, and admittedly with some effort, you will have what you need to do and in which order, all written down and easy to follow. Your brain wiring may not keep you on track, but your lists will and your anxiety levels will be lower because you know you have your lists to check.
This might make me sound highly organised. I can tell you I’m not. Not at all. I wasn’t born like this and without Lists I’m still not. I was the one at school who forgot to do homework on time because I’d written in my general note book, in the days before we had school diaries, but forgotten to maybe write the deadline date, or check back at it. I didn’t use a diary. I often did the homework but took the wrong books into school on the wrong day. I’d turn up at the wrong classroom for a lesson that wasn’t until the next day. And if you’re wondering, no, I didn’t have a group of friends to follow in the right chevron . More about that in another blog one day. But I did learn from it. I learnt that my anxiety levels went through the roof when I made these errors. I spent my entire school life perpetually afraid of making mistakes. School and all those people was stressful enough for me but I couldn’t control that. However, I realised I could have some control over my disorganisation. I think I was probably about 14 or so before I worked that out, but then I started to use a diary to write deadlines in. I found that starting homework on the day it was set meant there was less last minute panic if I left it to the last evening and found I couldn’t do it without asking the teacher for help, because I’d left myself time to go back and get help. And boy did I bug those teachers. I must have seemed like a right little teachers pet. And there were the seeds of my forcing a level of organisation on myself born from a desire to reduce my seemingly constant anxiety. I need a wall calendar, and diary and diary app on the phone and computer. I need the app to bleep at me with reminders, for everything! However, in 36 years of marriage, and being the household administrator and at one point running my own business from home, I’ve only missed a bill deadline probably less than half a dozen times. It’s not never, but it’s rare. I have missed dental appointments occasionally and similar, but it’s rare. Thank you Filofax and now Google calendar etc. This year’s paper diary is is a Johanna Basford colouring diary. Yeay. Not only is it a place to keep myself organised, but I can lose myself in the colouring of the pages as I go. I love it.
So to sum up, use any and every form of diary to keep you on track and on time as much as possible. Don’t simply buy one and then colour the pages (oops, guilty for a week here and there), write in it. Check it daily. The more you do it, the more it becomes a habit. Set an alarm on your phone to remind you to look at it every morning and again in the evening for a review. Don’t beat yourself up over the things you didn’t get done, carry it over to the next day. Write priority numbers next to tasks to remind you which ones need doing first. Asterisk any that have to be done that day without fail.
And write lists. Lots of them. Keep them with you. If you need to do something, write it down, break it down into smaller steps, any order to start with. Once you can see them in writing on the page it will probably be easier for you to work out the order of sequence and priority. Rewrite the list in the correct order. Remember, the whole task may seem overwhelming, but each individual step is easier to contemplate and any large task is really only a collection of smaller ones. Concentrate on one at a time, tick it off when done, this is very important as it helps you to see your way through, and in no time at all, it’ll be completed.
If like me you work in a situation that requires a level of multi tasking, I sympathise. It’s hard. Poor executive functioning makes it harder. But… I do manage better these days. I use my notepad constantly and for things that others don’t need to write down because they have better short term memory than me. If I’m doing something and I have to answer the phone, the best solution I’ve come up with so far is to jot down where I’m at as I pick up the phone. Listen to what is needed on the phone. Jot it down as the person says it. It’s generally a request for something to be done in my job. Then I can glance at the pad, which of these is more urgent, I can then make a decision about which one to do first. But the main thing is, no matter which one I do at the moment, the other is written down so even if I’ve had to switch between tasks, I have a reminder of the one I need to return to and I can switch back more easily. I often leave notes for myself at the end of the day to remind me next day of something that had to wait. I didn’t do this when I started the job, and I’ve mainly learnt to do it since I discovered I’m probably on the Autism spectrum, but I can definitely confirm that it’s helping and I’m less terrified of making stupid errors and therefore less anxious at work. It’s an effort, it takes a few seconds longer, sometimes I don’t want to be bothered. But like most Aspies, I do have a very high work ethic. I want to do my job to the best of my ability. I may struggle with some of it at times, but I won’t allow it to be said that I didn’t at least try my very, very best.
If you are a family member, or work colleague of someone on the Autism spectrum, then try to be tolerant of slip ups, they will happen, but you can guide the person by reminding (not bossing!) them to check the diary often, and to keep a note pad with them. In time I believe the slip ups will be less frequent, but it takes practice and a certain determination to improve. Be gentle if they need easing back to a task or reminding of a deadline or arrangement. Most of us have short term memories like a goldfish, in other words, we do need reminding. But we are also often devastated when we make mistakes, it’s in our nature to want to be good at things, very good. Even small errors can feel catastrophic to us in the moment (I’m working hard on that one, and hoping that ASD targeted cbt can also help me at some point), so please don’t think that being gentle with us is perceived as being too soft, think of it as helping to avoid an emotional meltdown that can have wider consequences to everyone in the room at the time.
If you are a parent of a child on the Autism spectrum, I think it might be useful if you can help to encourage the use of diaries and calendars and lists as early in your child’s life as is practical and developmentally appropriate. Let them see you use these methods, get them involved, get them their own wall calendar and diary and help them use it and make lists. Think of it as an essential life skill for anyone with poor executive functioning. Start with simple things, say football practice. Put it on the calendar, every single week, maybe help them do it in January every year. Get them to look at the calendar every day. Help them to make a list of kit they need, keep it in the kit bag so they can get the habit of checking it the day before (write “check football kit” on the calendar on the day before). Help them build these habits into their life, and you’ll soon find any child on the Autism spectrum will happily embrace any routine, especially if it reduces anxiety.
Everyone will have slip ups, I will, as I did yesterday, but I am extremely grateful for the support I from my family and work colleagues, a gentle nudge back in the right direction did the trick and I hope all of you who read this can also experience such a supportive environment.
I’m also taking “social contact” and conversation lessons from my family, more about that another time. I’m very, very lucky. It’s proving to be a difficult transition time, from second rate pretend neurotypical to first rate real neuro-atypical, one who is happy with her identity and self, but who can interact with the “majority” world better as herself, but I am experiencing a lot of support and loving care. I wish the same for everyone going through a similar experience. And keep writing those lists and diary entries.