What is Executive Functioning?
One of the most frustrating and most misunderstood part of having a Learning Disability is executive functioning. Executive functioning is the management department of the brain. The tasks involved with this helps us to set goals, plan and complete duties. People who have neurodiverse brains that are wired differently often struggle with executive functioning . When someone struggles with this it can affect them at work, home or at school. The three main areas of executive functioning are working memory, cognitive flexibility, and Inhibitory control .
My difficulties with working memory make it hard for me to learn new information and to complete tasks. Most people who know me are shocked when I tell them that I have difficulty with working memory. I can recall funny stories that happened in the past with great detail. Many people don’t understand why I can recall memories, but struggle to remember dates or math facts. In order for me to remember something, I need to have a strong emotional connection to it. It’s hard for me to have an emotional connection to math, unless you count sadness, or anger at not being able to get the answer.
Working memory is more complex, technical, and can be tedious. Somewhere my brain loses the steps to learn new pieces of information. When I struggle to process new information people assume that I wasn’t paying attention. I remember attending a CPR class for a training at a previous job. I paid attention to the instructions, but forget the steps when I had to perform it on a mannequin. The instructor asked me coldly “What’s the matter? didn’t you pay attention?”
Another component of working memory is paying attention. I don’t have ADD/Or ADHD, but it can be tough for me to to concentrate or work in a noisy or cluttered environment. I was often told that I would have to learn to work with distractions. It is true that I have had to function with distractions, however I generally don’t do my best work with this method. I may forget an important step or miss critical information, I’m distracted. Taking tests and completing assignments in a quiet area helped me to have better scores. I can recall at one work place where I had to wear ear plugs.
Cognitive flexibility can also be difficult for an individual with executive function issues. A change in schedule or routine can cause anxiety or anger. It can be difficult for me to process changes to a schedule or routine. My brain has trouble processing a change. People who are Neurotypical can generally process changes in plans with more ease. When something changes suddenly, my mind struggles to comprehend the changes.
Cognitive flexibility also effects problem solving. Some people may freeze and not take action in a changing situation. Others may keep using an ineffective method to try to handle the situation. What helps me to process a changing situation is planning alterative plans, if things don’t go as planned. For example If I’m going to an outdoor event, I may see what indoor events are nearby in case of rain. Another helpful strategy is talking aloud the changes that are happening. I have had people assume when I speak the change aloud that I’m complaining. I may feel disappointed if it was something that I wanted to do, but I’m also processing the information that has been given to me. Hearing it aloud helps me to be able to understand new information.
Inhibitory control is another part of executive functioning. It’s how you control your impulses. People who struggle with this may blurt out inappropriate things or act impulsively. People who have limited self control are often excluded. Many times they don’t understand that they may have said something to offend the person or the message that their signals are sending out.
I have issues with inhibitory when I’m in difficult situations and someone is trying to upset me on purpose. It’s hard for me not to show it on my face or not to say something back. I had to learn how to have a calm response, and walk away when needed. It also helps to role play situations and to journal them to gain understanding. Maturity is also an important factor in Inhibitory control When I was younger it was difficult to control emotions, but when I grew it got easier to manage them.
Executive functioning presents challenges for a person who is neurodiverse. People with differently wired brains often struggle with working memory, cognitive flexibility, and inhibitory control . Many times these behaviors are thought to be a bad or difficult person. The person who has difficulty is not trying to be difficult, but is having difficulty with the situation. Executive functioning issues are not a free pass, for someone to be rude, or abusive. Behaviors do have consequences and it’s important that they are dealt with appropriately. It’s important for a person with difficulty with this to find ways to learn, work, and live with a neurodiversity. The world is truly not designed for a wide variety of minds, rather it is designed for people who neurotypical. Until society becomes more understanding, people with executive functioning difficulties need to find ways to do things