Executive Functioning?

Tools and Strategies

Have you ever had the feeling of walking into a room and having completely no idea what you’re supposed to do next? It’s remembering that you’ve forgotten, but not knowing what.
Or, have you ever had so many tasks that you get too overwhelmed? A task so daunting you decided to go for a lie down instead?

That’s something many autistic people have every single day.  

One of the things that is quite difficult for many autistics and neurodivergent people is something called ‘executive functioning.’  It’s the mental processing involved in making decisions, multi-tasking, organization, and getting started on tasks.  It’s not exclusive to autism, though. It happens in people with ADHD, cognitive impairments, and even mental illnesses such as chronic depression.
One of the most significant issues with executive functioning is the assumption that the person is lazy.  This is often the case when the person is a teenager- especially as teenagers are often known for their laziness! However, it can actually be detrimental to accuse the person of laziness. Many times, they already are frustrated with the difficulties of executive functioning. The scolding, in turn, can exacerbate stress on the person and cause greater difficulty in functioning.

Of course, we can be lazy too. It’s okay to be lazy sometimes; relaxing is a perfectly healthy thing to do! That’s another topic altogether.

Someone who struggles with executive functioning may have difficulty with organizing tasks. If you give them several instructions at once, they may feel overloaded and overwhelmed. They may even have trouble remembering what you told them. When this happens, they may not be able to do them at all – or only one or two. For myself, I have sat in my floor for two hours because I was trying to process my tasks for the day. My brain has to pick each step apart so I can fully grasp it, or else I become overwhelmed significantly.


Visuals and Schedules

I actually have several post-it notes around my room to remind me of important tasks, as you can see below.

Post-it Notes
An edited collage of several post-it notes from around my dorm room. Many cover things such as eating, self-care, and chores that need to be done.

Some of these things are processes I’m actually quite good at, such as looking after my Leia Lyta. This is because cats are mostly self-sufficient, and I tend to prioritize her anyway. Cats don’t let you forget.

Other things are things I need reminders on – like brushing my hair or taking my meds. Lately, I’ve had a bit of an issue of remembering food. My body isn’t really registering it as much as it used to, which is probably not a good thing. I’m not the only person who has trouble with that, though. It’s nice not being alone, at least. Because of that, I keep Ensure drinks on hand to try and keep my nutrition stable.
(Tip: if you or your kids have issues with this sort of thing, nutrition drinks are the way to go. They’re actually not that bad once you find the right flavor for you.)

If you’re more picture-oriented, a “First, Then” board or  visual schedules are also very useful. When my brother was first diagnosed, that was often used in the household. We had a really nice binder with lots of different pictures, and it was great. It helped him transition more easily, and it helped prevent frustration a little more.  I secretly wanted one for myself, to be honest! We used them when I volunteered in the CDC classroom as well, and they were fantastic.

first_then
A small example of a ‘First, Then’ board. This one is from a Vanderbilt ASD module – which of course, doesn’t seem to show any girls in its examples. *sigh*

For myself, I’m in the process of making several visual schedules for my dorm. I’ve got one for my morning routine, and hoping to finish making the rest soon! It might seem a little childish, but it’s really helpful to have a visual prompt and simplistic list of steps to keep me on track in the mornings. It helps me live a more independent life, which is actually something that I have trouble with.

Part 2
A visual schedule listing each step for getting ready in the morning. I made sure the images were cute – a way to make me feel a bit more cheerful as I checked off each list.

Technology

Another big help for me  these days is technology. Phone alarms and medical apps are a lifesaver, and serve as good reminders. I’m considering getting an app for visual schedules for myself too, but all the nice ones seem to cost a bit.

reminders
A phone alarms menu and a medication reminder app menu. The medication reminder app is called ‘Round,’ if you’re curious. I’ve yet to find an app I prefer the most. (Edit: Since I last posted this, there have been several medication changes and additions.)

The alarms go off at specific times. Some are reminders for medication, while others are for eating. I use the medication app so that I can remember whether or not I’ve been taking them correctly during the past month.

Of course, even a medication/pill box can be useful – especially if you forget easily. Sometimes even a chart can come in handy!

20642326_1395902260526049_1131747078_o
A poor quality photo of my medicine box. These are just the meds I can put in there. I may be upgrading it soon, actually.

There is also a daily habit app called Habitica that can be quite useful! I don’t use it anymore because they changed the format (did I mention my frustration with change?), but it’s still a good tool to look into!

Planners and Organization

As for daily planners and organization, I have several methods. My main calendar is through my phone, per the typical college student’s life.

planner
A side-by-side view of my two calendars I use to keep up with classes and appointments. I usually only have to put data in one of them and they sync. However, the one on the left (iStudiez Pro) also has the option to include assignments and due dates. 

Many people prefer to go “old-school” and make lists. Some find it easier to write in an agenda or personal calendar. It’s all a matter of preference, honestly. I find that writing things out also helps, as having a concise monthly view can make scheduling a bit easier. The only downside is how overwhelming all the information can be.

21706185_1433993200050288_1449266315_o
My “old school” agenda that I use to keep track of all my events and appointments. Bonus: color coded!

Some people even prefer wall calendars or desk ones. I use different ones with mostly the same information. It helps me remember, but it also gives me a rough idea of how my day is going to go. With this information, I’m much less likely to have a meltdown or get too stressed during the day.

21767096_1433997870049821_1135968584_o
My wall calendar! It’s somewhat incomplete, as I don’t always remember to write everything on it. Even so, it’s a helpful tool for me.

Things such as worksheets and executive functioning handouts are also incredibly useful. I went over some of them when I did the executive functioning workshop a while back. The best part is that you can use them to work out complex situations – or simply just to get a better understanding on how to keep your brain motivated and in tune with your daily activities.
If you want any of these resources, just send me a message and let me know! I can usually find printable things to help. I’d post them here, but I don’t know if I’d get in trouble for copyright issues. Let me know and I’ll do what I can to help you! I also have located slideshow presentations with more in-depth information included if needed.

And as always, just keep stimming!