One of the more subtle disabilities associated with #Aspergers is executive dysfunction. Not every #Aspie shows this, and the degree to which it manifests varies from individual to individual. Those of us who do have it may present as chronically disorganized, impulsive, or even slovenly.
Executive functions are higher mental processes carried out in the frontal lobe of the brain. These processes include planning, anticipating, following through on tasks, organizing, and multi-tasking. This area of the brain is also associated with regulating emotions - we already know how insufficient communication channels between the frontal cortex and the amygdalae of the AS brain contributes to Aspie emotional lability issues. Executive dysfunction issues show us why people with Aspergers often have difficulty dividing their focus, planning, or figuring out where to begin a project or how to pitch in, and certainly explains why I can’t multi-task worth a darn!
Over the next little while, I’ll discuss some of the executive function issues that I have, and offer some of the supports that I use to help me manage them. A lot of them will doubtless sound familiar to some people — Many people, neurotypical as well as on the spectrum, experience executive function issues for a variety of reasons. What marks the issues as a brain function is the inability to ‘just get it’, despite sustained effort. If the executive function issue is a result of environment, it can be trained out, but if it’s organic, it can’t be trained out and the person will have to rely heavily on imposed supports. These supports often take the form of routines.
Routines are extremely important to people with Asperger’s Syndrome. They allow us to navigate steadily through life, doing what needs to be done. For a person who really relies on their routines, changing their routines then complaining that they aren’t coping is akin to taking a person’s crutch and complaining that they’re staggering. The majority of the support tools that I use depend on establishing routines.
Without our routines reminding us what to do and when to do it, we get distracted by any of the gazillion things we’d rather be doing. It’s all very well to sit down to a nice raid in World of Warcraft, but with our legendary extreme focus, it means that the next time we get up for a stretch, five hours has gone by. Ooooops! That’s no way to live.
Intense focus is a common trait among people with Asperger’s and it’s often coupled with the inability to divide focus and inability to multi-task. A frequent complaint of neurotypical people is that when they interrupt an AS person who is in deep concentration, even if it’s just to express affection, they may respond snappishly (I’m guilty of that one :( )
So: Imagine that you’re listening to your favourite music. You’re fully relaxed, fully involved in listening… then, a burst of loud static blasts out of the speakers or through the headphones, hurting your ears and completely destroying your experience. The music comes back and after a few minutes, you start to settle down and enjoy it again… then another burst of static rips through. After a while, you can’t relax into the music anymore because you’re dreading another burst of static. You feel frustrated because of the static, and you feel frustrated because you can’t get into the music anymore.
That’s what it’s like for us when we’re frequently interrupted. For those of us who
have the ability to hyperfocus, it goes even deeper than that. Hyperfocus is one of the gifts that can go with Asperger’s Syndrome. It’s a particularly intense form of concentration, the exact opposite of multi-tasking. A person in hyperfocus is concentrating so hard that they can completely tune out everything except the object of their attention (I’ve been known to not recognise my own name!) When I hyperfocus, I speed up, a lot! I normally type around 70 wpm; I’ve broken 100 wpm while hyperfocused. Hyperfocus allows me to meet otherwise-impossible deadlines and to turn work around in record time. When turned inward and plugged into the imagination, hyperfocus allows me to almost ‘channel’ my writing. My best work has been written while in deep hyperfocus. Hyperfocus is my super-power, it’s one of my best talents.
If you had a special talent and were constantly prevented from using it, how would you feel? Just something to keep in mind when dealing with a person with Aspergers. If the person is focused on an assignment or task, just smile and let them get on with doing what they do best. You can tell them to keep up the good work, when the work is done.
Which is as good a place as any to start: Task management