The ability to sit down and study for a test or write a term paper within a reasonable period of time and without a million distractions. Being able to plan your day in advance so that everything can get done–and then seeing that plan through. Generally having a well (or well enough) organized room, backpack, locker so that you can find your stuff and move with ease through your life.
These sorts of tasks–our ability to plan, organize our time, see a task through to the end, and problem-solve along the way–are referred to as executive functioning skills. According to ADDitude, our executive function skills begin developing around two-years-old and don’t become solid till around age 30.
For some folks, though, these skills never fully develop or don’t develop at a normal rate. When this happens, it’s referred to as “executive dysfunction,” and can be a very debilitating condition to live with. Children and grown-ups who struggle with ADHD are 30-40% more likely to have executive dysfunction, according to ADDitude. Having autism also increases your risk, too, as research has found.
Living with executive dysfunction can make life really freaking hard. Parenting a child who experiences it can feel demoralizing and exhausting sometimes. The same goes for having a partner or close friend with executive dysfunction. You struggle to understand what it must be like for them. And let’s face it—living with someone who has trouble planning and completing tasks can be downright infuriating at times.
You can read all you want about what executive dysfunction is like, but it’s quite another thing to really get it. As someone who doesn’t struggle with the disorder myself, but knows people for whom executive dysfunction is a daily struggle, I am often looking for ways into their reality, so that I can be a more understanding and compassionate friend and caregiver.
I was recently scrolling Twitter and came across a post by Twitter user Lilo the Autistic Queer describing a day in the life of someone who lives with executive dysfunction. Lilo the Autistic Queer’s honestly and clarity totally blew me away. Reading it is the closest I’ve come to really understanding what it must be like to have executive dysfunction.
Lilo the Autistic Queer—who prefers they/them pronouns, according to their Twitter bio, but doesn’t share more biographical information beyond that—writes about sitting down to do their homework.
“I sit down to do my homework,” they begin.
A simple enough task for most of us right? But for someone who lives with executive dysfunction, it’s not that straightforward an experience at all.
“I decide I need water first,” they continue. “I go get water. While I’m drinking water I realize I haven’t had breakfast. I stick toast in the toaster. I go to the restroom. I decide the dishwasher needs to be unloaded.”
Oh boy. I’m feeling a little discombobulated just reading this! I can only imagine what it’s like to be in that situation.
Lilo the Autistic Queer’s homework plan continues to unravel, without them even realizing what is happening or feeing able to control things. In fact, they move from task to task—unloading dishes, dusting the floor, sweeping, gathering laundry—without a plan or a way forward for any of it.
Of course, not being able to follow through with a plan, or having a clear vision of the future and what needs to be accomplished, is one of the telltale symptoms of executive dysfunction. Seeing it play out in real time in this post is really eye-opening…and heartbreaking too.
Lilo the Autistic Queer shares more details about where their homework session ended up going. They ended up making toast that got cold; they remembered that they forgot to take their medication; and they ended up reheating and eating the toast for 30 minutes.
By the time their story is all told, two whole hours have gone by, and their homework hasn’t been worked on. At all.
Now, as a parent, friend, or loved of someone with executive dysfunction, this is the kind of thing that can absolutely drive you bonkers. “Just do your damn homework already!” you think.
But obviously, people with executive dysfunction have brains that work a little differently than others, and simply can’t follow through with tasks the way we wish they could. A post like this really helps onlookers understand how deeply difficult it is to live with executive dysfunction.
For me, the most powerful part of Lilo the Autistic Queer’s post comes at the end, when they talk about how living with executive dysfunction affects them emotionally.
“Another important aspect of executive dysfunction,” they share, “is the bit where you realize all these things need to be done, but can’t figure out which is most important or where to start, so you have an anxiety attack and do none of them instead.”
Oh my goodness, this is difficult and painful to read. Someone who doesn’t fully get what it’s like to live with executive dysfunction might say, “Well, just pick yourself up, figure out how to get your task completed, and move on.”
It’s not that easy though, especially because, as Lilo the Autistic Queer notes, executive function can lead to feelings of anxiety, depression, and other mental health struggles. (Indeed, there is often a relationship between executive dysfunction and anxiety/depression. Check out this bit of research for more.)
There is a silver lining here, though. The more awesome folks like Lilo the Autistic Queer share their experiences in raw and candid ways, the more we can begin to get rid of our quick judgements about folks who function differently than we do—and the more those who are struggling can get the help they need.
There are many resources out there to help people who struggle with executive dysfunction. Check out this post for some helpful ideas. If you suspect your child or loved one has executive dysfunction, make sure to reach out to your pediatrician or therapist for a diagnosis and treatment options.
I have a feeling that as awareness grows, there will be even more methods and therapies out there to help. But it all starts with awareness—so kudos to those who are bravely sharing their stories.