Executive function, is a term that relates to our cognitive abilities of thinking, language, perception, memory, learning, self-control, time management and more. It is another one of those vast, woolly old areas that I fear will result in me writing a very long essay about it here…

Let’s start with a quote that made me laugh, wince, and identify with strongly, when I read it. It’s from Pete Wharmby’s excellent book UntypicalYou’ll find full details on our Information page. He says, on page 157, “My limit is planning for the next five days. Beyond lies chaos and chance’.

As I’m trying really hard to organise my time effectively this weekend, and writing this glossary is on a tight, self-imposed, deadline (tomorrow), I shall therefore endeavour to keep it brief. If I have any chance at all of pulling off this insane target (the sensations associated with it feeling very reminiscent of writing my dissertation at university) then I need to get up early each day, go to bed late, minimise all other activities and not get distracted from the task. Hyperfocus will need to be the trick up my sleeve (but ALWAYS with an awareness of the need to pace myself if I am to avoid burnout). I’ll need to read, digest and select the most succinct ways of defining each of these glossary terms and I’ll need to remember to go back and forth between them, adding new links to each entry as I write.

The paragraph above is an example of me using my cognitive abilities to plan my schedule, solve problems, remember key elements of the task and put my plan into action. In order to implement the latter, I will need to concentrate, be organised and be willing to rethink my approach if my plan hits some unexpected mishaps. These are just a few examples of the functions that our little mind executive plays, alongside all of the boring stuff like when to eat, when to have a break, whether to take a phone call, respond to someone who walks into the room, remembering to walk the dogs, put the washing out – all of these activities and decisions are under the control of the executive function system. Like many ADHDers, my little executive often likes to let me down, just when I need it most.

I like to imagine the Executive Function Department in my mind contains a high powered executive – business suit, very nice work bag with loads of compartments for stationery. She sits at a stunning vintage teak desk, with nothing but an overflowing bowl of midget gems on it, floor to ceiling windows behind, and several very well behaved little dogs at her feet. She achieves – oh BOY does she achieve. She has such panache, everyone respects and admires her and all are happy to do their jobs efficiently and happily while she gives instructions at lightening speed. Like I say, that’s how I like to imagine my Executive Functions…

Unfortunately, my Executive is in a job share with a lovely old hippy. She isn’t lazy, she just doesn’t have the same approach, the same awareness of time… she doesn’t really respect these silly deadlines – it’ll be done when it’s done, if it’s done. And she really enjoys playing solitaire on her phone and looking up new bird spots in her book when they fly past the windows. And when things all get too much, and she realises that chaos is now the order of the day, she’s likely to put her feet on the desk and go to sleep to cope with the sense of overwhelm. Task inertia is the order of the day, when this half of my job share is at the desk.

Ah. It seems I have been enjoying my little scenario too much and have forgotten the task in hand. I now have no time to actually write about how executive function affects us all in different ways, at different times, not only ADHDers, autistics and other neurodivergents, but neurotypicals too. When an aspect of executive function isn’t very effective, it is often referred to as executive dysfunction, but I’ve avoided using that term as it has negative connotations.

Anyway, just time to add a link to the Autism Awareness Centre Inc’s neat little summary of the many varied roles of executive function.

My job sharer has returned, so I must be off…

Related glossary entries, as well as those indicated in red, throughout this article, include: