What Executive Function Has to Do With Gardening, Cooking, and Exercising

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?

I Can’t Eat Soup or Omelets and It’s a Problem

I’ve never read a garden-y, homestead-y book that didn’t extol the virtues of soup and/or omelets as ways to use up vegetables. Garden writers are absolutely ravenous for vegetable soup.

The trouble is, soup and omelets are the two things that I, an autistic person with texture sensitivities and many other food issues besides, absolutely cannot eat. They’re both glorp with things in it and frankly it’s like eating vomit for me. Oh, I can consume a few types of thin broth-y soups if I’m sick, and I can put cheese in scrambled eggs because it only improves the texture, but neither of those are ways to use up vegetables. So, on the one hand I feel like I’m missing out, and I skip most descriptions of soup now, because it will sound good, but when confronted with it, I won’t be able to eat it, and it’s just a waste of ingredients. On the other hand, I still don’t know what to do with surplus vegetables. Eating on a garden-based, farmer’s-market rhythm is different from going to the store and buying just enough for your recipe. You have a sack of something that needs to be eaten. What to do? Further, it’s really difficult to find options that aren’t too complicated for my autistic palate. (Many recipes from non-American cultures focus more heavily on vegetables, thereby using them up faster, but also tend to be more intensely spiced and flavored, and it’s too intense for me.)

Here’s what I have:

  • Salad. The obvious choice if you like raw vegetables, and a good way to use up that last radish or half a carrot, but I get bored with it quickly and don’t especially like cold food.
  • Roast a bunch of vegetables, including many tomatoes and garlic, and preferably mushrooms, cook further in tomato sauce, and use as a kind of vegetarian bolognaise over pasta. This is my favorite. You can also leave out the tomato sauce and cook the vegetables for a bit less time to keep them crisper, and toss with pasta and olive oil for more of a summery pasta, but I like my vegetables softer and more blended into one entity. You can actually blend the sauce if you don’t want big veggie chunks, but I don’t take the trouble.
  • Stir-fry and put over rice, or make into fried rice. (I don’t know how to stir-fry things adequately but perhaps I’ll make it my next project.)
  • Grill or saute vegetables and put over polenta. This can be a bit tricky to do without ruining the texture of both, but when successful, it’s transcendentally delicious. You want to make a vegetable slop with a rich flavor, but not too many textures. Mixtures of eggplant, tomato, peppers, and onions work well, with Italian herbs and olive oil. If you eat meat, sausage or pot roast is very good for adding flavor and richness.
  • Make a ricotta tart. This one is from An Everlasting Meal by Tamar Adler, and one of the only soup alternatives I’ve seen that’s really discussed as serving the same function. Cook whatever vegetables you like however you like — roast, boil, saute. Get a pie crust. Mix 1.5 cups ricotta, .25 cups olive oil, 2 tbsp cream, .5 tsp salt, 2 egg yolks, and a bit of thyme or rosemary. Put in the crust and bake at 400 for 15 minutes. Add the vegetables and bake another 10 minutes. This tastes good, can use any vegetables, lasts and tastes good for a while in the fridge, and is more filling than vegetables on their own!

I Garden Because of a Comic Book

The comic book is Owly: Tiny Tales by Andy Runton. It’s a collection of short and mini comics about his character Owly, so I suggest starting with volume one instead, but you can read them in any order. I’ve loved them for years, since I first started reading comics around 2008-2009. (Comics are now one of my great passions.) Owly both inspired me and helped me cope with sensory barriers I had to gardening.

Each Owly book is about him meeting other forest creatures, and usually the animals are scared at first because he’s an owl, and that makes him sad because he loves everyone and wants to help. Over time, the other animal realizes that, and there’s a happy ending. We see him building birdhouses and birdbaths, planting gardens, rescuing trapped animals and nursing sick ones, and having nice times with his growing network of friends as they pass in and out through the seasons. It’s cottagecore before that was a thing, advocating for treating nature gently. The books were originally wordless, but the new reissues in color have some words in them to make it easier for parents to read them aloud to kids. I often struggle to follow wordless comics because of The Autism and difficulty with sequencing story images/inferring intent and emotions, but Owly I always understood, maybe because his little emotions were the same as mine.

In January of 2020, I found out that Andy Runton also lives in Georgia and was going to be doing a signing in Atlanta at the Little Shop of Stories, a bookstore I’d been meaning to check out for a while. Before the signing, I reread all my copies of the Owly books. It reminded me how my first thought on seeing my new backyard, three years before, was “this would make a great wildlife garden!” It reminded me how much I love animals, and that even small things can be done to help them, like planting good flowers to feed the bees. It also made me feel guilty that I’d ignored the project I wanted to do for three years.

Here’s the thing: gardening is, or can be, a sensory hell for me. Feeling damp is the worst sensation I know of, other than serious physical pain from an injury. Autistic people know what “sensory hell” means, but I really don’t know how to convey it to neurotypical people except that it can be utterly intolerable, and while sometimes exposure can reduce sensitivity, it can’t be forced and most autistic people will never get over their sensory hell. It’s biological. Possibly worse than the damp, though, because I’ve developed ways to work around that which we can discuss later, was the prospect of having to touch gross things. Dirt and bugs. Having to turn over dirt or leaves and cringe at the possibilities. I genuinely didn’t know if I could do it, no matter how much I wanted that wildlife garden. That’s where Tiny Tales comes in — specifically the story “Helping Hands.” (You can read it for free on the Owly site.)

In the story, Owly’s friend Bunny doesn’t want to get her paws dirty, and he remembers that when he was little, he didn’t want to get his wings dirty either. His mother didn’t mind that, and gave him little gloves so he wouldn’t have to touch the dirt. He looks down at his gloves, understands his friend being scared, and gives her gloves too. When I read that, I just started crying, because it was so gentle and empathetic and not trying to teach or force someone not to be scared of something “silly,” or even not to be too fussy, but just offering an accommodation for them so they can participate too. Right then I decided to get a pair of gardening gloves and get started, and I did. I’m still working on making that backyard a wildlife garden, but I’ve welcomed so many animals into it anyway, because they don’t care if it’s perfect. I’ve planted pollinators, and see hordes of bees. I stumbled into vegetable gardening, homesteading, and a slower, more self-sufficient and animal-focused lifestyle that’s better for me.

The funny part is, I only used the gloves once or twice before I stopped needing them, because getting my hands dirty was quicker and easier and I found out I loved the textures of leaves and petals and even fresh potting soil. I still don’t touch bugs with my bare hands, but when I see them I immediately try to identify them and learn about their function in the environment, and it’s easier to relate to them and value them then, even if they’re not ones I want to stay around. But even if I still used the gloves for every tiny task, that would be okay too, because Owly showed me it was okay to find a way that worked for me.

The shop was great, Andy’s talk was great, the signing was great, it was all great. Yes, it was mostly children and their parents there, but I don’t mind that. Owly is the very definition of an all-ages comic, and Andy’s talk was all about how professional artists erase and redraw and fix things as they ink and how kids can embrace that, super encouraging and talking to the kids on an equal level, which is amazing. During the signing portion I told Andy about how much I love Owly and how it’s the only wordless comic I understand because I’m autistic, and he was super nice. I didn’t say anything about gardening and wildlife to Andy Runton in our short conversation, because I hadn’t started yet, and I didn’t know if the gloves would work, and saying that a book inspired me when I had nothing to show for it yet would be meaningless, but I planned to send him pictures when I did have something to show for it, and I definitely had to share the story here because it’s so important to me.

So, if and when I’m able to send him this post: Thank you, Andy, so much, for your books. Here are before-and-after pictures of my pollinator patch. I’ve also seen a hawk and chipmunks and a mouse and so many squirrels and birds and bees and butterflies, and seeing them makes me feel like Owly. You’re doing wonderful work, and making a difference, and I’m so grateful. Signed, your fan forever, Hannah.

Blooming Lamb’s Ear

Lamb’s ear, also known as rabbit ear or bunny ear, is fuzzy groundcover plant. It has antimicrobial properties, so in a pinch you can use the leaves as bandages. It doesn’t bloom very often, it mostly spreads from the roots and I didn’t actually realize it blooms at all, so this was a surprise! It’s native to the Middle East and invasive in some areas, but easily controllable in Georgia as it spreads quite slowly. The leaves are super fun to touch so it’s popular with kids, but also me, an autistic person who loves tactile stims.

Eventually This Will Be the About Page

Me (a femme redhead) and my spouse (a handsome skinny guy with a beard) and our alarmed tabby cat.

I seem to be an unconventional homesteader. I don’t have children, for one, so it isn’t for their benefit, and it isn’t particularly for the lifestyle. I always imagined myself living in a city, spending a lot of time online, without a garden in sight. I hate getting dirty. I hate getting sweaty. I hate cooking. I grew up poor — I wanted to get a good full-time job with benefits and have a comfortable place to live, and not have to dig in the dirt or “make do” all the time or go hungry, and then I’d have made it.

But I’m also autistic. I got the degrees and the good full-time job with benefits, and the crushing depression from having to go to work every day nearly killed me. Work in America is designed to be miserable in a lot of ways, for a lot of reasons, but it’s even more so for anyone with a disability or neurodivergence. We can talk about that more later.

I was able to leave full-time work thanks to my angelic spouse, and the day after I started a new part-time job, Covid hit, and I was home by myself for three months. Along with diving back into the art I’d drifted away from years ago to get my too-many college degrees in the name of full-time employment, I remembered that I’d wanted to create a wildlife garden in my little apartment’s backyard, and thought that would be a nice project to start in quarantine. I’m autistic, I love animals. Of course, I couldn’t do very much with no supplies or plants — I bought a single lantana from Walmart and that was all for most of the year — but I started reading about wildlife gardening, and somewhere along the line, I found vegetable gardening, hobby farming, and homesteading. I experimented that summer and fall, but this year, I’m starting in earnest.

To me, homesteading represents freedom in a very specific way. It’s the freedom to work in ways that help me rather than hurt me. To have food to eat and homemade things I need, even if I don’t have money. To have a natural pace in my day, not an artificial imposition full of sensory assaults. And still, despite the mission drift from wildlife gardening, to live the animal-focused lifestyle that matters to me. Even if my original reasons are different, many of these are the same reasons anyone else wants a homestead or a hobby farm. I’m starting with a small apartment garden — at the titular Butterscotch Cottage, named for the color of the walls inside — but one day, if all goes according to plan, I’ll be growing most of my own food and raising animals.

My parents were homesteaders thirty years ago, before it was a thing with a name. They just lived in rural Alabama, grew a garden, and raised goats and rabbits. I only have faint memories of that time, but up through my teens, there was generally an (often-untended) garden around, and my mom kept chickens. All of which I generally disliked, for the reasons above re: dirt and sweat, and also that I hate being forced to do things. So, I had a little bit of an education in things like how to repot a plant, but despite the earlier proximity of gardens and chickens, I’m mostly starting from scratch.

This blog will be my journal of the process, and I hope that sharing my experiences as an autistic gardener and homesteader will help you too, and help show that we can thrive if we’re given the opportunity.

Contact: hannahegivens@gmail.com