Executive function/dysfunction is a term I throw around a lot, and I’ve got to admit, it was laughably late in life before I really understood what it really meant. Over time, working in my field (Special Ed.), identifying with so many of my students,and doing my own research, I started to realize that executive functioning is more than, say, a messy backpack or late assignments.
It’s actually executive functions — plural — and when we talk about executive dysfunction, we’re actually talking about a set of several separate-but-related skills that people with ADHD and other neurodivergences have relative weakness (and relative strength) in. Different sources have different ways of categorizing skills, but some commonly accepted categories are working memory, organization, task planning, emotional control, initiating work, time management, monitoring, and shifting attention.
I am definitely weaker than most people in all these areas, but my areas of relative strength are monitoring (“The ability to judge the quantity and quality of ones work based on expected standards”) and emotional control, though that is still considerably lower than my monitoring skills, and pretty low overall (but much, much stronger than it was when I was a child/teenager).
Also, executive functions aren’t all or nothing, and I find that because they are all so tightly intertwined (and because we all have other things going on in our minds that can impact our behavior), that I actually function slightly better or worse even in my problem areas depending on situations and circumstance — for example, my intense anxiety and fear of both letting people down and being caught off guard, I often have an extremely good handle on my work schedule, our timetable at work, where I (and my coworkers!) are all supposed to be, etc. So for example, while I honest-to-God lose my phone every ten minutes (at the height of work activity, that is not an exaggeration), I know exactly where I’m supposed to be with my students every minute of the day.
For long time, I thought that these bright spots meant that I must not have “real issues,” it really must just be carelessness or laziness, but the emotional toll the anxiety causes me made me realize it was really just a separate mental issue that happened to, under a very specific set of circumstances, work in my favor. But living at that level of hyper-vigilance at all times and for all things would be devastatingly emotionally and mentally exhausting.
Do you know when I realized all of that stuff — the task shifting, the emotional regulation issues, the time management — all fell under the executive functioning designation? I was an adult. Like, not an especially young adult — and adult who had been working in the Special Ed. field for several years, and would never have looked into or learned more about it had I not been working with kids with the diagnosis. I feel like the outsider’s perception (if they even have one) when they hear “executive dysfunction” is messy room/desk, absentmindedly misplaces things, etc. I especially feel like the emotional component is entirely overlooked. I spent so much of my childhood being screamed at about my “hysterics” and disproportionate reactions to seemingly inconsequential things, and I wound up spending a years feeling angry at myself for what I knew were over-wrought responses, but which I simply couldn’t control.
And hey, if any of this sounds familiar to you, this past Christmas I got The Adult Executive Functioning Workbook, which included a link to an executive dysfunction test that will rate your relative strengths and weaknesses in several areas. It’s a short test, and obviously not a formal diagnosis, but it is interesting to get a perspective on where you’re strengths and deficiencies lie (don’t worry, you don’t have to provide your email to take the quiz).