Executive function versus the world

Throughout college I have become increasingly aware of my autism and its effect on my perception of the world. Gradually adopting adult tasks has exacerbated struggles that were otherwise benign in childhood. One facet that I think is particularly important to discuss among autistic adults is that of executive function.

Cynthia Kim, in her blog “Musings of an Aspie,” said, “In practice, executive function is a slippery concept. Sometimes it looks like responsibility. Sometimes it looks like self-discipline. Sometimes it looks like being a competent adult. If you have poor EF, people might mistake you for being disorganized, lazy, incompetent, sloppy or just plain not very bright. Why? Because executive function encompasses so many essential areas of daily living. Nearly everything we do calls on areas of executive function. Cooking. Cleaning. Parenting. Work. School. Self-care.”

My struggle with executive function manifests itself in various college life situations. Labs, cooking, jobs, studying, grocery shopping, socializing and general errands that need to get done. It can be very frustrating to be unable to do things that society presents as so simple.

Sometimes, I know that I need to do a thing at some point, but it is like there is an inhibitor in my brain that is like, “Nah bro, chill out,” and so I procrastinate. Of course, if I continued to live this way, I would get nothing done and would struggle for quite some time. So I must develop mechanisms through which I can thrive.

For cooking, I simply have to accept the fact that I will have to improve through practice, and that I may or may not take longer than the average individual. Grocery shopping is an entirely different problem, since that requires planning, cooking skills and the ability to step foot in a grocery store without having an onslaught of sensory stimuli overwhelm me. My primary strategy with groceries is to stick with the dishes I already know, and in that way, I do not think about what I need as much. I just have to grab them and go.

Labs, meanwhile: I do not think I will ever be good at labs. They horrify me. You have all this new technical equipment to play with and there is some person with a PhD talking to everyone from the front of the classroom, saying some mumbo jumbo about whatsit and giving instructions; suddenly you are thrown into the thick of it and are expected to know the content, equipment and to follow procedures — it is a lot. Oftentimes I have let my lab partners do the bulk of the thinking and simply delegated myself to the manual labor.

Studying can also be a problem for me, particularly when there are numerous distractions around me. Friends, people, bright lights, my phone, etc. It is very difficult for me to just zero in on a given task and maintain that focus for an extended period of time. I love the library, but I often find myself extremely distracted there, particularly on the first and second floors. Yes, it is true that I could drag myself up to the third or fourth floor. However, in my humble opinion, those parts of the library are not as pleasing of study spaces. They are so close-quarters, quiet and dusty that you cannot help feeling like you are in “The Shining.”

My method of overcoming my issues with self-discipline is to write a to-do list prior to each day and to hold myself accountable to it when feasible. It is not a perfect system, but it helps me get a lot of things done. Sometimes I wander around campus in search of a place that will be less distracting. Even when I do find one, it is still difficult because my mind finds ways to distract itself. Beyond my own capacity for self-improvement, it is also necessary for me to rely on my friends for help. I do not think I would have made it this far without the patience and understanding of those closest to me, and for that I am grateful.

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