Executive function -> or is it dysfunction….
It could go either way. But what is it. It’s a word that is often heard in neurodiversity circles but what exactly is it. Because I was always pretty convinced it had nothing to do with suits, ties, CEOs, and briefcases.
There’s a good summary here:
What is executive function?
The steps of executive function:
Around the time of puberty, the frontal part of the cortex of the brain matures, allowing individuals to perform higher-level tasks like those required in executive function. Think of executive function as what the chief executive officer of a company must do — analyze, organize, decide, and execute. Very similarly, the six steps of executive function are:
1. Analyze a task
2. Plan how to address the task
3. Organize the steps needed to carry out the task
4. Develop timelines for completing the task
5. Adjust or shift the steps, if needed, to complete the task
6. Complete the task in a timely way
So on the surface I can be like yes I know all this, I know how that all works and it all makes sense to me. Maybe I am all good with that! But, hang on just a minute. I think about how this works in practice. Well, it never just works out in a nice linear fashion like that. Does it for allistic and neurotypical people? I don’t know, I am not one so I can’t give a real opinion on that.
But, I can effectively analyse a test, I can make a plan, I can even organise the steps (well sometimes). Even I think I am pretty good with step six, completing in a timely way. It’s those pesky steps in the middle. Let someone else develop a timeline and I am fine. I managed pretty well to get through my bachelor degrees rarely needing an extension. The issue comes into play I think when it comes down to me developing the timeline. I have a tendency, I think, to underestimate the time needed to do something.
Step five, though, that one, yes that one is a real kicker. Making adjustments as needed. Now this I think is the one that really kicks me around and impacts my ability to successfully do things.
As an example, I am currently completing a web developer diploma. I am doing ok with that, I am doing it online, which is a real test of my executive function abilities. This past week I submitted a progress installment of a project I am doing for feedback. The response I got was helpful, however, it was pitched quite differently than the actual project guidelines indicated. Now I know that’s all good, but the impact for me was sitting there for a day almost paralysed about how to proceed.
That change and shifting of what is expected. It really can and does, for me at least, have a profound impact on task effectiveness and completion.
I have a suspicion this is an issue for many people, I wonder though if for neurodivergent people it is at a whole other level. In considering this I am drawn to the ideas of spoon theory by Christine Miserandino, spline theory by Luna Lindsey, and fork theory by Rosie Guedes.
In a sense, these are all metaphors of how it can be to exist for neurodivergent and other disabled people. For each day and each, there are only so many spoons and forks available. When they are used they are used. Yes, they can be replenished but there is a cost.
Now splines, I find this is where it really is at, the idea is that when we have to change tasks, there is a mental, and sometimes physical, packing up of one task and unpacking of the new. This can be incredibly anxiety provoking and the cause of much frustration.
The metaphor comes from computer games. There was a producer of games that used a splash screen for loading times, the splash screen said ‘reticulating splines’. I find it an incredible helpful idea. It encapsulates the reality that there is wait time and delay for me to shift tasks.
I am pretty convinced, and I admit it is totally anecdotal, that reticulation of splines has a massive interplay with my executive functioning success and challenges.
I am surrounded by devices, I have a browser upon at this moment with about 20 tabs open, one of those tabs, though, is a list of about 60 tabs that were recently closed. Next to me is my smartphone. The phone and the browser will notify of multiple events from multiple networks detracting me from the task at hand and resulting in that need to reticulate splines.
Yet the timesuck that social media is, I find myself loathed to close these notification means down, one might miss something important right?
Yet, the reality is, the spline reticulation process has a cost of not just time delay and frustration. Every time one has to reticulate, as it were, there is a price to be paid in spoons and forks. Depending on the person will depend on the number, but regardless, each time it costs. Yes, each and every time.
Say you have 20 spoons for the day and each reticulation costs one spoon, you might need to reticulate ten times in a day. That means you’ve used half your spoons just on that. Half your spoons are gone, just on task changing. You only have half your spoons left to do the really important stuff like, eat, dress, shower and breathe.
So I think for me this combination of Executive (dys)function, Spoons, Splines, and Forks; is a really useful combination of metaphors for navigating life. In an isolated vacuum, executive function is perfectly manageable and I can get it done. But life is not lived in a vacuum by any means and so it goes that the interplay of those other metaphorical concepts has a strong impact on how any given day ends up being experienced.
I am left with a thought now, that leaves me wondering, is it any wonder neurodivergent folks at times get mightily frustrated and upset at the idea of changing focus or moving between tasks with seemingly unnecessary regularity.