Lately, I’ve noticed quite a few posts about executive dysfunction disorder in autistics. It’s caused me to think about my own. It’s not something I normally talk about much, and I think it’s the same for others on the spectrum, because why would you want to talk about something that makes you feel a failure?
But now it’s coming out of hiding, and I think this is good. The more we air our difficulties, the more we can accept it as part of our autistic nature, and learn to work with it rather than bash ourselves up for it. We can stop feeling like there’s something ‘wrong’ with us because we ‘can’t get our lives together’. It’s both a practical thing and a self-esteem thing, in other words.
For me, it was an issue long before I had any idea that I am autistic, or that there was a name for my disorganised state. Though my house is (usually) tidy, it being really clean is, shall we say, a less frequent occurrence. Dishes pile up, floors get grubby, the toilet needs cleaning, dust balls threaten to mutate into a different lifeform. Then I will have a sort of mad dash around, cleaning and scrubbing and washing and vacuuming, ending up exhausted, but feeling pretty virtuous!
In the past, however, these cleaning jags often meant I’d start cleaning one thing, say the bathroom sink, then I’d notice the mirror was dirty too, and start on that, and then think ‘Jeez, I should really do the bathroom cupboard’, and empty it out, but before I finished that, I’d see that the wall above was dirty… And then I’d go to fetch something for cleaning it, and notice that the wastepaper bins needed emptying, and while I was doing that, I’d see something else which needed doing, but in the middle of doing that, I’d wander by the bathroom and remember I hadn’t finished that either… before I knew it, hours would have gone by, and I’d have half a dozen incomplete tasks, stuff lying around everywhere, and be too drained to finish any of them.
I’d also often forget appointments, uni lectures, etc, or have a mad scramble to get to them on time. I would frequently arrive late, all sweaty and anxious, feeling like a fool, and never quite recovering my poise. Then I’d go home and crumble into tears, vowing to ‘do better next time’, without having the slightest idea how. I often felt like I was stumbling from one disaster to another, like a firefighter battling summer drought fires - as soon as you put one out, another starts.
And now? Over the years, I’ve learnt a lot about self-management. Appointments go on my calendar, hanging in a prominent place. I have a daily ‘to-do’ list whiteboard, another on the fridge for the shopping list, and I could really do with a third for the ‘weekly to-do’ list. I also have a whiteboard by my desk, for writing and other creative tasks. I have some fairly rigid routines around evening tidying-up, so that I don’t wake up to a mess. I use my cellphone or my bedside clock as an alarm, and a kitchen timer. I work hard on staying on track.
And yet. I sometimes still arrive at things late. I don’t necessarily get around to finishing my ‘to-do’ lists. Things get shoved to the next week’s list, and the next, and the next. I forget to use my various devices. And so on. Not to mention that I have CFS as well, and other health issues, that make cleaning even more difficult than it used to be.
And one thing I’ve never managed to do much about is erratic sleep patterns. Just last week, talking to the dietician (I’m pre-diabetic), she was talking about the importance of ‘getting back’ to regular sleep habits, so that my meals get regular too. I was too embarrassed to admit that I don’t really have regular sleep patterns to get ‘back’ to! I might be up till two am one night, sleep in till ten am, then crash early the next night. I force myself into ‘proper’ bedtimes when I have to, but I never seem to be able to keep to them for long.
On a daily basis, keeping myself ‘on task’ means, even now, with all the ‘box of tricks’ I’ve garnered, a constant jarring wrench of my attention back to that task, over and over. And, I must emphasise here, I don’t fit the criteria for ADHD/ADD. At all. It’s just that, well, I see things, or I think about things, the state of the nation, the state of the world, the future, or ooh look at the pretty butterfly, or the lovely pattern of the leaf shadows outside, or God that wall is grubby, and should I clean it now, or, or, or… and then I have to remind myself - hey! You’ve got a job to finish here! Pay attention! Repeatedly.
It’s rather like you’re trying to go for a walk, only you have a ‘gammy’ leg which means you keep staggering off the path. But a friend keeps dragging you back on. Except the friend is also you. Imagine how difficult your progress would be, or how little you’d make. That’s what it feels like.
But I’m not sharing all this for sympathy, or hints, or anything like that. No, the point of this post isn’t really any of that. It’s about my amazement at people who don’t have EF issues. I’ve been watching them my whole life, and I still don’t know how they do it.
You know the sort of person I mean. The flatmate whose room is always tidy, or the workmate who effortlessly completes their daily assignments. The neighbour doing garden work at ten am Sunday, chatting to a mate or his wife at the same time, then going out for the afternoon. The relative who goes shopping without even a list, and yet never seems to forget anything important. They just… do things. One task, after another. After another. All day. Every day. Without any seeming effort or trouble keeping themselves on task. With no jarring or dragging. Huh.
Sometimes I’ve seen such people complain about getting ‘distracted’ or feeling ‘scattered’, but as far as I can tell, it’s NOTHING like what we experience. (I’m sure that there must be some NTs who have serious EF issues. I just don’t know any.) (I’m sure there must be autistics who don’t have EF problems either.)
How DO they do it? How does it feel to be like that? I have no idea. I look at them and know I can never be like them, live like them, and it adds to my already strong sense of alienation from the vast bulk of humanity. As if I needed anything to increase that.
And given my age, and how long I’ve been working on this, I don’t think it will ever be any different. The only thing I can do is to continue to work on self-management, and on self-acceptance. Not to mention throwing off the judgements of others.
Because the judgements we place on ourselves are hard enough to shake off. We really don’t need more of that, from people who just don’t understand, as it only makes our lives even harder, and doesn’t solve ANY of our problems.