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On Executive Functioning and Autism

Working in education means that a lot of what I do is based around the education of students more than actually educating them. This basically means a lot of time is spent doing the following: attending meetings about data, filling out countless spreadsheets to track attendance, progress, engagement, target and expected grades, intervention and marks to name a few. And then, finally, meetings about the science of teaching or pedagogy. While all these taken independently are fine I have found that I struggle when having to do all of these simultaneously.

It may be a case of cognitive overload or it may be due to an impaired ability in something known as Executive Function. This website I’ve found extremely useful on the matter: Executive Functioning in Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder (kennethrobersonphd.com)

Several of the areas that Dr Roberson has identified struck a chord with me. For starters, the inability to start tasks in a timely manner or to realise how long a task will take. During my under and post graduate degrees I would leave everything to the last possible moment. Procrastination is not particular to autism alone, but it is a feature. There are other things in this article as well that I found depressingly applicable. For example, the careless mistakes. This is something that I am very prone to and I never understood why I would make them. I would apportion the blame to a lack of common sense or intelligence. “I am too stupid to get a simple thing right”.

But what about anecdotal evidence? Well, I have some. When I was working in Ireland part of my job was managing client Direct Debits. Each client would have a payment line on the system and each of these records would have the client’s bank details stored behind them. If there was an adjustment made to the account, such as a credit added or a debit added, then a new line would be created. This means that it is perfectly possible for one account to have dozens of payment lines depending on what has happened to that account over the course of the financial year. One particular account had dozens of lines and the client was disputing the amount that they should pay per month. I was told by my manager to delete all the payment details for the upcoming month so that no Direct Debit would be taken. I went through each line and deleted the details. I was certain that I had checked every single line. I told my manager the same and she was happy enough. And then came the Direct Debit run. And one line had been missed. And a payment came out. And my manager was not happy. I ended up on the end of an almighty bollocking and it wrecked the chances of me getting a good end of year review. I did not know how one line could have been missed. I was so sure I had checked everything. The apparent autism diagnosis can somewhat explain, but not excuse, this error. I may well have been checking each line and then either became distracted with something and not returned to the right one or I assumed I had checked one when I had forgotten how many I had checked. When detailed like this it sounds like incompetence on my part but where a nuero-typical person may recall which lines they have already looked at, I didn’t and as a result things went badly.

I am always aware that I cannot blame this supposed autism for every mistake I have made both personally and professionally. I cannot blame it but I do think it can sometimes explain it.

If I am given a long list of verbal instructions, especially in a meeting, then I find it hard to remember all that I have to do and what task is more important than the others. I find it hard to start some tasks especially if I know that the task will be boring or if there is an element of it that I find makes me feel particularly uncomfortable (making phone calls to parents is a big one). It is kind of like an inability to see the woods from the trees.

This section includes things that I have always found nigh on impossible:

I really don’t think that I am missing things because I am lazy, or because I rush tasks or that I am “scatty” or “featherbrained”. I do miss deadlines and not because I don’t care but because they creep up on me and then I am in a state of panic which in turn has a huge impact on my ability to prioritise, organise and do. I have tried keeping ‘To Do’ lists, diaries and calendar reminders and I still seem to allow them to come up and grab me like a monster springing up from the floorboards. When I was training to be a teacher, I would plan individual lessons and not think two or three lessons ahead. I was incredibly “unsystematic” and as a result I got a lot of irritated comments from the class teachers. Again, I thought that this was because I was too dumb, too disorganised and being held to a different standard to all the other teachers. I thought it was also because I was the only trainee doing my subject – this meant that I had nothing and no one to work with. However, even if I had then I would not have gone to them for help. What Dr Roberson classes as “lack of collaboration with others” applies to me. Not in the ‘I am too good for their help’ kind of way but more of a ‘if I ask for help, they will think I am dumb or crap at teaching’. I struggled on alone for a long time until my brother stepped in and supported me. Again, I let it get to breaking point before I reached out for help. My wife stepped in, spoke to my brother asked him to help me and told me to accept the help. No man is an Island except those that choose to be.  

It is just another element of my neurodiversity that I do not particularly like. I want to be successful and for those I work with to consider me competent, skilled and capable. I hate it when I discover the little mistakes I make. Often, I find myself just wanting to be normal. Just wanting to be able to think, speak and feel the same way as every other person.

Some people with autism seem to be child prodigies, high-fliers in their chosen field, know everything there is to know about a certain topic and I don’t. I am the most average person with autism that you are ever likely to meet. This does bring to mind a stanza from the poem ‘Desiderata’ by Max Ehrmann, “If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.”

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