Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Are You Struggling with Executive Functioning?

In my last blog post, I introduced the term executive functioning, and now I want to take the idea to a more practical level. Many of the kids I work with as a therapist struggle in the area of executive functioning, and they’ve frequently been diagnosed with specific deficits in this area. This might have been done at their school, by a psychologist or medical doctor, or at a learning center. Diagnosis can be a very helpful tool in setting up a plan to make up for any deficits, so every individual can function at the peak of their abilities.
But for adults with Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) like autism or Asperger’s, deficits in executive functioning are seldom diagnosed. Many of my adult clients don’t even have a formal ASD diagnosis, much less a specific analysis of their strengths and weaknesses. This isn’t because the deficits aren’t there, just because the diagnostic process is less rigorous and available to adults. So, if you’re an adult diagnosed or suspecting that you have an ASD, you might want to do some research into executive functioning as well.
A good place to start is by carefully defining any problems you might be having. A step by step, methodical approach can work wonders. And, by taking tiny steps, the problem, which was vague and huge, becomes more manageable and the solution intuitively obvious.
As an example, let’s look at a hypothetical engineer named Ed. Ed was never diagnosed with an ASD, but is pretty sure he fits the criteria for Asperger’s based on his problems with social interaction, unusual communication style, and strong interest in computer technology. Ed is very intelligent and has been quite successful professionally. More recently however, Ed has started to struggle with more work related problems and his boss never seems to be satisfied.
Imagine that you’re in a situation like Ed’s. How would you deal with this problem? The first step is to consider specifically what the boss has complained about. Replay the conversations in your head and list the issues if you can. Reread your performance reviews, or any other written comments you’ve gotten. Ask a trusted colleague for input. In Ed’s case, he realized that his boss has complained repeatedly because reports have not been completed on time, he’s missed numerous line item deadlines for his main project at work, and he’s often getting to work too late.
Clearly, all these issues fall under the category of deficits in time management. By redefining the problem from, “My boss hates me.” to, “I need the work on time management.” Ed can come up with specific, concrete solutions, and so can you.
What can you do if you’re dealing with a similar issue? Lots of things:

  1. Since people on the autism spectrum are frequently visual, lists, timelines and charts can be the best resource.

  2. Make a detailed list of the milestones in your work assignments.

  3. Figure out the order in which the steps need to be carried out, analyze how long they take, consider roadblocks and items that are out of your control.

  4. Factor in some cushion in case everything doesn’t run smoothly.

  5. Talk to your boss about his expectations and requirements for specific deadlines.

  6. List these items on a calendar and check it daily.

  7. It may help to create little checkboxes where you can physically mark your progress.

  8. If you’ve missed a deadline, deal with it immediately. Ignoring the problem does not make it go away.


And, most important, check back on this blog for more posts on managing executive functioning.