Executive function struggles are a hallmark of autism and ADHD, as well as anxiety and depression, but it’s one of the most common things people don’t understand about neurodivergence. Neurotypicals don’t have a concept of executive function because theirs works fine, and many neurodivergents don’t understand it either because they haven’t had anyone explain it to them, and that mass lack of understanding is one of the foundational things that keeps us from flourishing. I’m not claiming to be an expert, but I know how much it affects me.
Executive functioning is about how you initiate actions, make decisions, and organize your thoughts. It can be broken down into various specific functions, but that’s basically it — it’s how you do things and the connection between your brain (and emotions) and your actions. It’s connected extremely strongly to dopamine regulation, and that’s why when you’re neurodivergent, or depressed, or anxious, and your dopamine isn’t flowing, it’s extremely difficult to “just get up and do it,” whatever “it” is. Whether you want to do it or not, you can’t. Another way some people describe it is never feeling like it’s “time” to do something — an overwhelming sense of “I can’t do that right now, it isn’t time to do that,” even though you know it is. Your brain is telling you that you can’t.
The effect is compounded when a task has a lot of steps — and what “a lot” is depends on how you’re doing that day. Sometimes, “get up” is one step for me. Sometimes, it’s “1. Put on glasses. 2. Turn on light. 3. Untangle sheets. 4. Sit up. 5. Stand up. 6. Leave the room — don’t sit back down.” And so on, throughout the entire day, for every task. Each thing has to be divided into the smallest possible parts, in the right order, and I have to hold that list in my head (or compose the appropriate next step in my head), and then use energy to get myself to take that step. Each step seems to take the same amount of energy, even if it’s not the same amount of activity — on a good day, “get up” counts for one. On a bad day, just “put on glasses” counts for one. And I can only do so many. (Read up on spoon theory, if you haven’t already.) Often I have to sit and wait for the energy, aka the executive functioning ability, before I can do any more steps.
From this perspective, gardening, cooking, and exercising all share two problematic qualities: They have a lot of steps, and the steps have to be taken in a proscribed time relation to each other. Some recipes have gaps where you can finish them later; most don’t. You can’t take the food out of the pan when you’re ready, you have to do it before it burns. Theoretically, if you lift one weight intermittently throughout the day, that’s better than no exercise at all, but it’s not “exercising.” I personally require a shower after any kind of physical activity because I can’t stand feeling sweaty, and I sweat easily, so if I’m planning to exercise or garden or cook near a hot stove, I also have to plan in a shower, and that’s a whole other set of steps and timing concerns. All these things are things I (to some extent) enjoy, and (to a great extent) desperately want to do. But they are hard, sometimes prohibitively so.
When your executive functioning is different from a neurotypical’s, there are hacks you can use to think in ways that make sense to you. Visual schedules and written workflows help enormously. You can use the “bumble” method, as I call it, which is where you physically go to the general location and bumble around until your task is done, because seeing things in that location will continue to remind you to keep making your sandwich or keep emptying the dishwasher or whatever. You can borrow initiative from someone else, and do a similar activity they’re doing, a technique called “borrowing praxis” that gets around the “it isn’t time to do that” feeling. You can design your work in spirals — I keep a lot of work open in different tabs on my computer, and cycle through them, rather than trying to power through one project. That doesn’t work for physical activity, though. It doesn’t work for anything where the steps have to happen in a fixed period of time.
Even if it did work for gardening, no matter how many kludges you come up with, if your dopamine regulation is off, you’re only going to be able to do so much. So you get the shame of being “lazy,” even to yourself in your head, or the shame put on ADHDers for “not trying hard enough.” For me, it’s more the shame of constantly failing. I don’t feel lazy, because I know how hard I’m trying. But I do feel like I failed, every single time I want to do something and can’t make myself do it. And that’s really really hard, and that’s why I don’t want more “acceptance” of executive disfunction, I want more healthcare professionals to work to understand it and help us find ways to work with our own minds and our own unique dopamine systems instead of just trying to force everything through or abandon us to make up our own half-working hacks to mimic neurotypical styles of functioning. I want enough of us to be doing well that we have examples of what other thinking even looks like. I want employers to build flexibility into their systems, so I can actually be allowed to do my best. If I want “acceptance,” it’s not that I want you all to accept me being “lazy” and give up, it’s that I want you to accept there isn’t one right way to do everything.
I don’t want to be less of a problem for everyone else. I value my differences, and I know how well I can do if I have an environment that allows and encourages me to do well. But other people think “accepting” differences means being condescending and not expecting me to be able to do anything. All I want is to be able to do the things that I want to do. Is that so much to ask?