What a strange word, right? The internet labels executive dysfunction as “the disruption to the efficacy of cognitive functions, which is a group of cognitive functions that regulate, control, and manage other cognitive functions.”
In other words, doing what you’re supposed to do is really hard.
It’s not that we don’t want to. Hell, executive dysfunction has kept me from writing an article a day for Autism Acceptance Month, like I was super excited about doing. I had my entire schedule planned out for writing it, because doing that ahead of time helps keep me on track. But I’ve only written a few articles, and it’s April 12th. Nearly half over, and there’s still a lot of ground to cover.
Often, executive dysfunction is associated heavily with laziness, when in reality, it is anything but. It blocks important grooming habits, cleaning habits, and requires often creative workarounds. For myself, I cannot bully myself and go “I am so lazy, why can’t I do this simple, simple thing?” the simple thing is showering. I have gone three weeks to a month without stepping foot into a bathtub or shower. Gross? Yeah, it is. But that’s only because until now, I haven’t figured what was going on and how to help it.
Executive dysfunction presents itself in not just autism, but also depression, BPD, bipolar disorder, ADHD, anxiety, etc. It is comorbid with many mental illnesses, though autism itself is not a mental illness, but a neurotype. With 1 in 3 individuals dealing with mental illness, that’s a lot of people potentially not showering.
Executive dysfunction pertaining to autism is a little harder to deal with, because no amount of medication will help. I tried herbal supplements, disciplining myself when I didn’t do the thing I was supposed to be doing, even energy drinks. My issue wasn’t a low energy issue, though. It’s the way my brain is wired.
A couple of ways I work around executive dysfunction is allowing myself to recognize the blockage. I tell myself “Though what is happening isn’t helpful, I recognize this obstacle and will allow myself time to ready myself.” If this isn’t enough, I contact a friend to encourage me. I also try to have someone do a task with me. For example, ten minutes ago my friend Sam told me if I cleaned off my bedside table, they would shower. It wasn’t a major event, but it helped me get up.
Executive dysfunction is one of the things that frustrates me the most about being autistic. On paper, I am a terrible friend. I don’t answer messages quickly(if at all), I don’t always answer phone calls, and sometimes I don’t send friends gifts when I’m supposed to(Promised gifts, not in general. None of my friends are so shallow they demand gifts) For the most part, my friends are extremely forgiving, knowing that I struggle not only with finances, movement, and parenting a child, but that I’m often being pulled in several different directions at once because of the combination of things I have to do. This doesn’t stop outsiders from commenting, however.
I mostly get comments on my appearance and my son’s appearance. My son despises clothing, which people understand, but his hair is curly and unkempt. He doesn’t allow me to brush it, so I space those out to bathtime. If this weren’t coupled with my own appearance, which is me dressing for comfort, not shaving my legs or armpits, keeping my hair up because it’s pretty greasy, it wouldn’t be such a big deal.
Luckily, most mothers and parents I know are hot messes and don’t judge me for skipping a shower or only running a washcloth over my body. And most mentally ill friends I have also have issues bathing and finding the will to keep themselves groomed.
Executive dysfunction doesn’t just mean we don’t shower. Some autistics have little to no issues with grooming. it can pertain to schoolwork, your job, even just walking into a room. And it can manifest in different ways depending on what day it is. You can even call it “extreme procrastination,” which is pretty close to what it is.
As a reminder, please visit the Autism Acceptance Month fundraiser on facebook and think about helping my friend and I donate to ASAN!