Reflection: About Executive Function; for Neurotypical People – Part 2

In this post, we are exploring a personal look at how it feels to struggle with executive function difficulties. Click here to read part 1.

The original post by Anarcho-shindouism did a great job of capturing the chaos and frustration that arise when the demands that are placed on us overwhelm our executive function processes. Her description struck a chord with many readers.

In a comment on her post, she writes:

When I wrote this post, I actually directed it specifically at neurotypicals because I wanted to try to explain what executive dysfunction is in a way that I hoped people like my mom would understand (ultimately, she didn’t). This post was stitched together from a series of comments I made on facebook.

I’m actually a little uneasy about directing this at ‘people who don’t have executive dysfunction’ since, as I discovered from seeing the many responses to this post, a lot of people are not sure whether or not they have executive dysfunction, and a lot of people have it but don’t realize they have it, and I don’t want to alienate those people.

So that’s why I will still direct this post at people who position as neurotypical, even though they are not the only ones who need to see the content of this post.

On a side note, this post has also been very helpful for a lot of people in realizing that they have executive dysfunction, and I’m happy for that too.

Here are a few comments to her post, that only reinforce the impact that acknowledging executive function difficulties can have.

One user says:


my wanting and needing being akin to my spurring an extremely stubborn horse who refuses to move.

Someone put it into words. I want to do it, I NEED to do it, I can do it, I just can’t…

Other comments include:

Oh, that… oh. I think that’s me. Thank you for posting and reblogging this.

Oh my god. It’s a /thing/ with a /name/?

Another user describes it this way:

I think about this a lot, because I have to.  In my own life, as a parent who struggles with executive dysfunction and yet has to teach a child basic life skills, it’s important to know my blind spots and learn to function around them.  He’s watching me and learning from my example, so I have to do my best to explain what I can’t always do, and try to do it anyway.

Executive function is such a fundamental and yet hidden trait.  It is in charge of reasoning, flexibility, problem solving, planning, and execution/prioritization of necessary steps in any action.

Each task is never one task.  Take changing the lightbulb – from beginning to end, it’s a series of steps that must be put in proper order:

  • Notice light bulb is burnt out.
  • Recognize that it can be fixed by putting in a new light bulb
  • Remember where new light bulbs are stored
  • Go to light bulb storage area
  • Select new one
  • Find stool or chair to stand on
  • Take out old bulb, put in new one
  • Screw in bulb
  • Replace chair or stool to previous spot
  • Throw away old bulb

That’s not even all of them, but it’s a good enough summary for now.  There are hidden stumbling blocks in every single step.

  • A burnt out bulb may go unrecognized as a problem – there’s two other bulbs in the room, it’s a little dimmer, so what?  It might take all three burning out before you see it as a problem.
  • Maybe you forgot where the bulbs are, because it’s been a while.  Searching the house is a task you put off, because it’s messy/disorganized/big/you have other more pressing matters.  The bulb can wait.
  • You find the bulb storage, but you’re out of new ones.  You have to shop.  You’re busy, you put it off until the next time you shop, by which time you’ve forgotten you need a light bulb.  Repeat cycle.
  • You’ve been depressed for a while, or maybe you’re just a messy person.  A stack of important documents is on the chair you’d use to stand on to get to the bulb.  You know if you move those documents you’ll forget where they are, and it’s tax stuff/homework/your mom’s birthday card, and you can’t forget that.  The bulb gets put aside until you deal with those things.  But you don’t want to deal with them now, so the bulb waits.
  • Throwing out the bulb requires safe disposal so that you don’t break it and accidentally cut yourself, or someone else in your home.  You have no idea how to safely dispose of it.  You put off changing the bulb until you figure out what to do with the old one.

On and on and on.  Each step requires problem solving, prioritization, and reasoning.  These are the hidden processes that go on in our minds every single moment of every day.  Difficult tasks build up, compounding the problem of completing others, until each action requires ten more before you can solve the minor problem you started with.  Changing a light bulb ends in a night of doing your taxes.  Doing the dishes ends in standing in the dish soap aisle at the grocery store for a half hour trying to figure out which soap to buy for the dishwasher… Every day tasks require exhausting mental gymnastics.

So, be kind to the person who can’t seem to change a light bulb.  There’s a lot that can stand in the way.

Reading these comments is heart-wrenching, but they also prove the absolute necessity of a curriculum like SMARTS. All students need to be taught strategies for engaging with the chaos of life, whether in school or out. Changing a light bulb does not have to lead to anxiety, frustration, and terror. By teaching our students strategies to overcome life’s challenges, we can work to give them hope and the will to persevere.

  • Elizabeth Ross, M.A., SMARTS Media Manager