ADHD/LD and me: executive functioning.

Yesterday’s post covered the basics of my world with ADHD and a learning disability. As I wrote about briefly, a big theme in the ADHD/LD sphere is that of executive functioning. I know, I know, it conjures up images of fancy businesspeople, specifically at a cocktail function. (No? Just me?)

So, what is executive functioning? Why does it matter? I’ll let the experts—and a sixth-grader named Josh—handle that in infographic form, made by the awesome folks at the National Centre for Learning Disabilities:

[View infographic here since the link broke]

(Source)

Nope, I’m not a sixth grader, but I struggle with most of these areas.

Organization: I was the person who never had a pencil or pen in school (fortunately, my friends—especially my friend Sam—were excellent with dealing with this annoying trait of mine…). Even in university, I usually had to get lucky on this one! I miss buses because I can’t find my keys, or I miscalculate how long it will take me to get ready before getting to the bus. A later pane has Josh unable to remember the correct place settings when setting the table at dinner—at twenty-three, my mom is still telling me to switch the position of the forks and knives more often than not! In a later frame yet, Josh forgets to put his finished homework in his backpack—yup, just because it’s important, doesn’t mean it’s making it where it needs to go: been there.

Working Memory: This is why it’s important for me to write everything down somehow. Whether it’s the post-it notes of chores, or making notes of what I’m reading… say it with me: “If it stays in your head, it gets lost.” (…Thanks for that mantra, Jay!). Sometimes, let’s be honest here—most of the time, I just simply didn’t do a lot of readings in university. Others, I would spend a ton of time doing the reading, and it wasn’t much different than when I actually did it. “I don’t know… I wasn’t thinking of those words when I read last night. I’m so overwhelmed.” is how I felt—and, hoping the instructor didn’t call me out for an answer: yes, I raised my hand when you asked who did the reading, no I didn’t lie—I did it, but, I can’t get the information you want in cohesive thoughts quickly enough to not look dumb or like I didn’t do the reading. “His heart sinks thinking about all the steps answering this question takes.

Self-Monitoring/Impulse Control: In the big picture, I appear okay with impulse control. Sometimes I catch myself talking way too much and apologize. But let’s go back to prior to the infographic when I noted that I took a 30 minute deviation looking for t-shirts. That’s because I impulsively read an e-mail instead of selectively ignoring it until I was done this task, and then allowed it to take priority over writing. Now, once again—how much is me, how much is ADHD? How much is that I desired to do that versus this, and how much of that was pure choice vs. choice with a side of impulsivity driven by ADHD? For instance, if I want to change my behaviour on a bigger scale (make it habit, perhaps), will it take me more sustained effort to change that behaviour versus someone with a “typical” balance of neurotransmitters (aka, a non-ADHDer!); how much of the success of this desire to change is derived of ADHD, and how much, more simply, of pure personality? Am I less likely to, for instance, adhere to an exercise routine because of my ADHD, or purely because of personality, than someone without ADHD? I don’t have answers for that, but for more on self-regulation theory and its applications, check out this article.

Cognitive Flexibility(/Working Memory): Here’s a parallel: Josh in the infographic struggles with keeping his thoughts organized in a soccer game… and kicks the ball into the wrong goal. This is 100% me. Interestingly, I coach now, and keeping the rules to the game straight is still very difficult for me—as is quickly revamping a plan without having somebody to talk it through with. This also translates into simply making/keeping plans and obligations. The combo of cognitive flexibility and working memory are probably also the difference between finishing a project early (be it a paper, volunteer research, or editing a video) because I remember it at other times and not simply the days before a due date! (I could be interpreting this wrong, but, that’s my take on it.)

Emotional Control: Little things -> big reaction? Sometimes. I still struggle to express anger or frustration in any other way than bursting into tears—or being on the verge of doing so. And, when so many basic things can be the source of my frustration, this is just another thing that is very difficult to deal with sometimes, because sometimes the small reminders feel like personal attacks—even if they aren’t at all, it’s just that when I forget my keys for the thousandth time or don’t have bus fare, I’m already frustrated enough at myself—so any outside digs are simply more than I need in a given moment.

Task Initiation: Going hand-in-hand with organization, switching from one task to another or prioritizing, can be extremely difficult. Why am I writing a blog post instead when I have a task I was supposed to have submitted yesterday is incomplete? Why did I not do any preparation for coaching Goalball on Sunday until the night before? Because it is difficult for me to initiate tasks that require a lot of mental organization or “figuring out” beforehand—even if they are things I really want to do. Because “I don’t even know where to start.” is 100% accurate. Which, of course, goes along with the next point…

Planning + Setting Priorities: I remember one occasion specifically where I started writing the bulk of my final paper for Sport in the Ancient World two days before it was due. I went to bed at 6:45 AM. I’d done the research, or at least a lot of it, but the writing of the paper itself went on the back-burner. I’m legitimately surprised that I had as few all-nighters as I did in university. Not being able to figure out the structure of a paper isn’t a mystery to me either—a combination of poor planning and task initiation lead me to having no idea how to write a midterm paper for Sport Ethics a couple years ago—I couldn’t figure out how to structure it, and it was due the next day. Had I planned better, I’d have been able to get help from the prof; instead, I dropped the course—a common thread in my university experience, and probably much to do with difficulty in terms of cognitive flexibility and planning/prioritization!  Refer also to task initiation.

Those are just a few ways executive functioning issues affect my life. As a young adult who is supposed to be gaining more and more responsibility, this is why my ADHD/LD diagnosis is key: in understanding myself and how I interact with my world, I am able to be more patient and self-accepting when I do mess up. It will happen, so best to prepare for it—and accept it!—through understanding the impacts of my quirky brain on my interaction with the world.

…The problem, of course, is that I think I’ve been too self-accepting: as I alluded to yesterday, my room is still a disaster :].

3 thoughts on “ADHD/LD and me: executive functioning.

  1. I’m fascinated by how many of today’s adults are being diagnosed with LD and/or AD(H)D only now as adults, while in schools nowadays (I think), these things are being diagnosed in kids. It’s not like LD and ADD weren’t acknowledged in my day (90s and early 2000s). They were. But only in kids who were literally failing out of school. Kids who were pulling C’s when they were too disorganized or unfocused to pull A’s were just told to try harder.

    1. Totally accurate–and I’d bet things were much the same the five or so years later that I was behind you in school.

      Like you said, I think unless kids have really significant issues associated with LD, they don’t get diagnosed–and, I think teachers are more receptive to identifying social issues too and reporting on those concerns (not that I think I had any significant social issues that would have been identifying). In terms of academics, I recognize now that I probably developed some compensatory strategies [like everyone does] that pulled me through until I left high school, but didn’t cut it in university–other than math, I had a really easy time in high school, so I think that thing in my assessment following my language/vocab skills being “superior” and “above the 90th percentile” and how those skills are the “largest predictor of academic success” is definitely true. (The other thing, too, is that I was “smart enough” to drop classes early in university, so I didn’t start failing stuff until later on–the social psych F was one of those “potentially teetering on a pass but more likely a fail” ones, and the two Fs in anatomy, well, I had to take that class unfortunately ;). So I probably would have failed more things if I hadn’t dropped literally 20 classes, haha.)

      Also, there’s that bit about girls having different ADHD symptoms than boys and flying under the radar because they’re less often behaviourally challenging and more often chatty (and don’t realize it’s an issue) or spacing out–so, I probably fell into that category.
      I mean, plus the part about never having pencils or other stuff — we also dropped Sam’s pencil sharpener enough times passing it between desks that I’m sure I owe her one of those, too ;).

    2. ^ Same with kids who pulled either As or 0s depending on whether they remembered to hand stuff in and/or do it in the first place, like me. We were called “lazy” and told to “get more organized” (without being taught organizational skills because disorganization was treated as a moral failing rather than a skill deficit) and to apply ourselves more.

      Try harder is a refrain I hate because unless you’re addressing the cause of the perceived lack of effort, it’s worse than useless to someone who’s struggling.

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