Why is Executive Functioning so Hard?

Mastering Executive Functioning

By Lydia Wayman

Like most kids on the spectrum, I had major challenges with executive functioning. I left things everywhere. I could do my homework on my own without a problem, but I couldn’t keep the assignment book up to date, so I’d get full credit on the paper and then miss points for writing the wrong due date. And if asked to “clean up,” I… didn’t.

As I got older, I had trouble remembering appointments, keeping track of paperwork, and working with money. I didn’t know why I had so much trouble–I was really working hard and my parents tried a lot of things to help me, but I never got it right.

Sometimes I hear parents saying…”If he doesn’t care enough about the nice things we give him to just put them away when he’s done, he doesn’t deserve them!” I remember how much I cared and how hard I tried. If the kid CAN’T make it happen, then more of the same punishments or reminders aren’t going to work. I can’t promise you what will work, but I can tell you about a few things that finally worked for me.

Strategy #1: There is no (I’ll do it) later.

If it’s out of place, pick it up and put it back. If you made a mess, clean it up before you do anything else. If you remember something you need to do another time, write it down or email it to yourself.

I don’t go to bed until everything is where it belongs. I set some things up for the morning, knowing that it’s hard to choose outfits or figure out which medical stuff I need to pack when I’m still half asleep. When I don’t want to deal with it all, I remind myself that I’m giving a gift to my future self. It’s silly… but the next morning, I’m pretty thankful to the last-night self for being so thoughtful!

Strategy #2: Break tasks into steps

I need to know what to expect whenever possible. If I don’t know each step, I don’t want to start, because what if I’m starting in a place that will have me in a corner later? Some tasks are almost impossible for me to plan step by step in my mind. It just feels like chaos.

That’s how cleaning up would fall apart. I needed to learn that the big task of cleaning was really a list of smaller things I could already do. As a child, I could have followed instructions to put my toys on their shelves, my books on the bookcase, my dirty clothes in the hamper, etc. As I got older, I could have added dusting and vacuuming. The final step is learning to break a task into steps all by myself. Through the whole process, I need extra time, practice, and support, but I can do it!

Strategy #3: Visuals

Visuals are a common tool for autistic kids, and really, they benefit everyone. They never seemed to work for me, but it turned out to be the wrong approach. Now, visuals make my world go round, just not the way you usually see them used. Here are some traits of what I need for visuals to work:

  • Everything is better in color

Colors can show the sequence of steps–my nighttime routine has each step in rainbow order. I also use color coding, such as a wall chart with five categories and corresponding sticky note colors. Calls to make are pink, medical supply notes are blue, writing ideas are in green. Colors can also help things to stand out. If I’m afraid I might forget an important paper, a neon pink sticky note makes it harder to miss.

  • Digital isn’t always better

I love my iPad and use it for a lot of things, but I prefer visual tools I can touch and move. For some reason, I need the experience of taking that Velcro tab off the chart or pulling the sticky note off and throwing it away. Since each task is independent of the others, I can rearrange my other sticky notes if needed. Crossing things off a list or deleting on an app doesn’t help me to keep track of what I’ve done and have left to do. So, I pull it, move it, crumble it, touch it, rip it, write on it… and then I can usually remember!

  • Finding the right visual tool for the job

Recently, I found out that a calendar is a visual tool. I never knew because it’s not how my brain thinks about time at all. No wonder I couldn’t keep track of appointments! The boxes confuse me more than help me. Visual processing is another issue. In the grocery store, I could not tell you if I’m in the toilet paper aisle or the produce section. Every time I shift my eyes, I feel disoriented and overwhelmed all over again.

Once I figured out that calendars are confusing and visual processing is tough, I could choose better visuals. Having everything on one calendar means I don’t see anything, so I keep each thing to be tracked on its own chart. I have charts for the shifts of my support staff, feeding the cat, morning routine, night routine, tasks to do, medical tracking, hours worked… it makes for a busy kitchen, but it really works!

Executive Functioning

Strategy #4: Routines

I’m a detail person. If I’m in a forest and someone decides to trim one of the trees, I don’t see a changed tree. I see a different forest. If you teach me a new task and later switch the order or even change the verbal prompts, that would mean learning a whole new task. I need to learn and then practice the same way each time.

You can use routine in your favor when it comes to teaching a series of steps… but if you’re changing the way I was taught, please show understanding if I struggle to redirect those motor urges to go back to that routine. I may be trying really hard to do what you ask, but my body can take over and do as it pleases–which is always what is familiar.

Strategy #5: Fun

It’s not all that fun to file a bunch of papers by your chosen color code or put away the laundry. Sometimes the boring jobs take a while to do, or they involve a very simple but very repetitive task. It’s hard to get the motivation to manage these tasks. I like to use audio books and podcasts for those times, and I generally use them at chore time (whatever that may involve) and no other. That way, no matter how little I want to do the task, I can usually override all the dread because I know it’s my chance to listen to something new and exciting.

Executive Functioning My Way

If you had told my parents I’d be this organized someday, they would have thought you must be confusing me with some other kid. It just took me a lot longer and I needed a different approach. If it seems impossible, remember that it really will be impossible if you stop working on the skills needed to get to that goal. If you’re not making progress, don’t just push harder, yell louder, or take more privileges away. Sometimes you can use the hang ups, quirks, and intense interests for good…it may have taken 25 years, but my need for routine, insistence on finishing any task I start, and love of colors and crafting are now the basis of my organization.

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About Jodi Murphy

I am the founder of Geek Club Books, autism storytelling through mobile apps for awareness, acceptance and understanding. My mission is to use the art of storytelling and technology to entertain and educate for the social good. I am a 'positive' autism advocate, mother of an awesome adult on the autism spectrum, lifestyle journalist, and marketing specialist.

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