Explaining & Navigating Executive Dysfunction


child in beige hoodie leaning forward on table feeling exhausted while studying

¿Executive Dysfunction?

Executive Function

Humans have this cognitive process called executive function. This is basically how our brains go, “yep, I have a goal or task I ought to get done and I am going to do it”, and then the really neat thing about executive function, is that it is by its very nature executive, it has the power, the ability, to put those little cognitive brain cogs whirring about wanting to do the task into action in order to complete the task from start to finish without veering off course. Hence, a person has executive function in a task. So, executive function for brushing teeth would look like a person thinking, “oh I should go brush my teeth” and then they work out what steps they need to do to do it and they go do it, no issue there. Obviously, this is really simplified and executive function is not only just about this. For example, executive function also is about being able to effectively switch between tasks, generally plan activities, emotional regulation, working memory, problem solving, and so on.

Executive Dysfunction

Now, there is the flip side to executive function, the rather aptly named executive dysfunction. This is where one, in the context of task initiation issues, can understand the goal and can even know exactly what needs to be done, yet there is a disconnect in the process. This makes even the simplest of tasks seem like an impossibility. People with an executive function problem like this may lie in bed trying to will themselves to get up to brush their teeth, yet the process of actually doing it does not follow automatically from that internal command, no matter how much they tell themselves. No matter how much they command themselves, yell inside their heads to “just get up and do it!” or call themselves names and beat themselves up over it. It is exhausting and draining to even try to will oneself to do these things, and it doesn’t actually make a person feel better if it takes all of their energy for such little reward. It can actually make them feel worse, like, “oh it took you all this energy just to brush your teeth and your exhausted from it and feel awful, how pathetic are you?!”. Sometimes people need to prioritise tasks depending on how much energy it will take from them when they deal with executive dysfunction. Executive dysfunction is not a disorder but rather a set of cognitive processes and symptom common in a few different areas which I also experience personally as part of my autism, ADHD, and anxiety.

For me executive dysfunction can become an issue with quite a few things from communication to selfcare. For example, I often struggle with actually communicating what is in my head, the process of bringing thoughts into conversation is a tricky one. I struggle with selfcare, for example brushing teeth can be really hard as it is a task I genuinely dislike in terms of sensory input, so I have that layer of just not liking it on top of just struggling or not being able to actually start on going to do it. The other part of this is, and I think it is an anxiety thing, I feel bad for not doing it, I think I feel guilt for not being able to do a lot of things, so growing up I found it really hard being told to go do a task like this or being questioned about it would as that would just make it worse.

Executive dysfunction can manifest in many ways and ultimately affects goal-orientated behaviours across working memory, response inhibition, set shifting, and fluency. Some examples of how executive dysfunction may affect these four areas are:

  • Working Memory – working memory is our ability to hold information temporarily, when we have issues with executive dysfunction we may struggle more with our working memory and our ability to focus on the task at hand.
  • Response Inhibition – response inhibition is our ability to basically think before acting so as to not engage in an action that interferes with a goal-driven behaviour, when we have issues with executive dysfunction we may be more reactive to things that distract us from the task at hand and more easily distracted.
  • Set Shifting – set shifting is the ability to move back and forth between different tasks, however, when we struggle with executive dysfunction, we may get stuck thinking on just one task and really struggle to or are just unable to change our focus to the other task. We can call this very stuck and continued fixed thinking on the task perseveration.
  • Fluency – fluency is our ability to communicate efficiently with verbal or visual information, however, when we struggle with executive dysfunction many aspects of this can become affected, from the pragmatics (i.e. how we communicate the social and contextual aspects of language) to the semantics (i.e. the actual meaning of the words) of language.

How I Navigate Executive Dysfunction

Executive dysfunction affects so many things and it can be really difficult to navigate certain aspects of it. Some skills I use to help with my executive dysfunction are:

  • Breaking tasks down into individual components to make them feel more manageable.
  • I have post-it notes and pencils (important to have them both) in every room to jot things down to help navigate issues with working memory and getting distracted by or too focused in on something.
  • I often have my computer read aloud the text I am reading to help me focus in on it.
  • I use a lot of mindfulness when I am stuck in that sort of ADHD paralysis and I will think to myself “okay, I am here and I am doing this thing instead of that thing and that is okay, I will get there in a moment” and I will be really gentle with myself instead of trying to just force myself, as I ultimately end up more stuck if I try to force things.
  • I try to have glasses of water in each room when I am working because I know I will forget to drink and I know having glasses of water around makes me more likely to drink.
  • I have a massive whiteboard to plan my week, but I also use a digital calendar too so I get notifications.
  • I make a lot of lists and add easy things on to them that I know I can manage to give me a boost by having something to check off quickly.
  • Asking others for help: this is an important one and you are allowed to do this, we all need help with different things at different points.

The Author

This was made by @pallyallywrites who has her own personal blog, pally.ally.writes, where they write about psychology, neurodiversity, and life.



How I Keep Myself (Mostly) On Track


white printer paper on white table

Find Your Own ND System This Spooky Season

Introduction

There are so many systems offered to those under the neurodiversity umbrella to help us stay on track of things: from bullet journals to calendar apps. Usually we are recommended tools from neurotypicals who just don’t quite get how we work. So, in this post, Marina, a wonderfully kind autistic individual, shows their own personal neurodiverse ways of staying organised and on track. She also offers suggestions and a download for others to try too. They highlight the importance, of finding your own systems, things that work for you individually, ultimately noting that there isn’t a right way to do all of this and that that is okay.

My Systems

Over the years, I’ve realized that planners don’t help me because the information is inside a book. If I don’t open it, it practically doesn’t exist. If I misplace it or forget to use it one day, it’s difficult to get back in the habit of using it.

So… here are the systems that work for me!


Whiteboards

I have two whiteboards in my flat.

One is in the hallway, so my flatmate and I can put our schedules on it. It helps us remind each other about events and know when the other person will be out or busy. I use a green marker and she uses a red marker.

Image Description:
Small whiteboard with blue frame and green and red text. Split into days of week. Some text has been scribbled over. 
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Shared Whiteboard

The second whiteboard is the most important. It’s in my room and it keeps track of my week.

It’s split into 5 sections:

1 – Week

  • I have the days of the week with numbers listed and I write the main event of the day
  • Updates Sunday night

2 – Today

  • Day and number
  • The day’s schedule in detail
  • Daily to-do
  • Dinner ideas
  • Updates every night

3 – Weekly/Long-Term To-Do

  • Write the deadline!

4 – Morning Routine

  • Sometimes I get stuck in the mornings, and it helps to know what I’m meant to do next

5 – Notes/Reminders

  • Anything that will make me happy
  • General reminders
Image Description:
Large whiteboard with wooden frame. Split into five sections, labelled with dates and times.
End of Image Description
Personal Whiteboard

Calendar

I got this cheap calendar and have it tacked to my bookshelf. All important events are added here, and I cross off the day once it’s over.

Image Description:
Red and white calendar open on October 2021 with messy writing.
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Calendar

Daily Routine and Habit Trackers

Image Description:
Diagram, 4 rows, 3 columns all separate tables.
First column has tables labelled Morning, Study, Free, and Night with relevant icons. Second has smaller 5x7 tables with days of week. Third has 5x1 tables labelled with tasks.

End of Image Description
Weekly Habit Tracker – downloadable and editable version at the end of article

Guide to this chart:

It’s split into Morning, Study, Other, and Night. Each table is 7 days’ worth.

The idea is that I may not do every single activity every day, but throughout the week I want to do them most days and I want to keep track of it. I struggle with maintaining a strict routine but there are things that I want to make sure I do.

Morning and Night are routine trackers. I can make sure I took my medications, brushed my teeth, did all the important tasks. Sometimes I forget, or I do things in the wrong order. It’s helped me to have it written out and be able to cross it off.

Study and Other are habit trackers. I don’t need to do every activity every day, but I like to make sure I’ve done them all at least twice throughout the week.

The Other (aka free time) section also serves to give me ideas for times I am bored and need something to do. I might realize I haven’t played video games in a while, or maybe I spent the whole week playing video games and should maybe pick up a book.

I usually keep this in a poly pocket so I can use a whiteboard marker to cross it off and reuse the same sheet.

I’ve attached an editable word document of mine at the end of the post.


Final Thoughts

Whenever I notice something isn’t working, I adapt it. It takes time to figure out what you need and what works for your brain, but it’s great to have A System (or several systems). One of my close friends loves to spend a day planning her bullet journal spreads and decorating it. That overwhelms me and I can’t imagine relying on it. My whiteboards stress her out because I have my deadlines right in front of me. Some people love their computer’s calendar, there are loads of apps out there, a regular planner is fantastic for others, etc.

It takes a lot of experimentation to find your own system, so keep at it and do whatever works for you. There isn’t a right way to do it.


Downloads



Tools for University: Referencing with Mendeley


Image Description:
a young masculine presenting person sitting on a green grass field with a laptop and both arms raised, and fists clenched excitedly with superimposed text reading, “Referencing with Mendeley in 8 Steps”. 
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Referencing with Mendeley in 8 Steps



Introduction

As tasks begin to mount moving further into the university semester, for some, coursework can be a big struggle. It can be especially hard to keep track of and manage references for essays for individuals who may struggle with executive dysfunction or staying organised due to their autism, ADHD, dyslexia, or other flavour of neurodiversity. So, Niko, an autistic university graduate, with a lot of experience managing all of this, has put together a handy guide to using Mendeley to help stay on top of your coursework.

Hello from Niko

Hi hello. This is (hopefully) a short Tutorial on how to use the Reference Management Software Mendeley, as well as its associated plug-in and extension. Using Mendeley helped me greatly in my Research Project, as I can organise the stuff I have to read through and reference them quickly and easily on my reports.


Step 1: Downloading Mendeley

This step is for downloading the Mendeley desktop app, Mendeley Web Importer, and Mendeley Cite for Word. You can also use this for other word processing software, like LibreOffice or Google Docs, but for this tutorial, we will be using Microsoft Word.

  • Download the desktop app on the Mendeley website.
  • The other parts can be installed via the desktop app (see image below).
Image Description: the tools drop down menu at the top left of Mendeley is circled to highlight the space where you can install Mendeley Web Importer, Mendeley Cite for Word and search for articles online.  
End of Image Description
Where to Install Mendeley Web Importer, Mendeley Cite for Word, and any other features.

From my own experience, and others, it is best to use your personal email when making the Mendeley Elsevier account because there was plenty of login issues when using your university email. However, remember that your university email is the one that gives you access to the articles in the first place. Thus, use personal email for Mendeley and use university email for accessing articles.


Step 2: Find An Article To Reference

  • When you get to the web page of the article, click on the Mendeley Icon on the top right of your browser.
  • I’m using Google Chrome, might be different on other browsers.
  • Once the extension loads, you can add the article and its PDF to your Mendeley Library by clicking Add.
  • In the image below, I made a Collection in my Mendeley desktop app called Sharky McSharkface. Thus, the article will be added to that folder as well as your overall collection of references.
Image Description: a pop up of Mendeley to the right of the screen with the add button over an article on thresher sharks.

End of Image Description
Adding a reference to your Mendeley Library

Step 3: Syncing Things Up

The image below shows the collection of references I have added to the Collection I named Sharky McSharkface. The reason why the Sync button is highlighted is that sometimes the reference don’t get added immediately to your library, so you have to tell the app to sync up whatever you added on the browser for it to show up on the desktop app.

Image Description:
the Sync button in the Mendeley library is highlighted at the top right hand side of the page.
End of Image Description
Syncing your references

Step 4: Reading on the Mendeley App

  • Once you have stuff added to the desktop app, you can just read it on the Mendeley app instead.
  • In this way, you don’t have those usual 50 tabs open on your browser. You can open multiple articles and shift through them via the tabs.
  • To go back to your collection, just click on Library next to the Mendeley icon on the top left.
Image Description: an article titled, "The skin The skin microbiome of the common thresher shark (Alopias vulpinus) has low taxonomic and gene function β-diversity" being viewed in Mendeley.

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Reading on Mendeley

Step 5: Mendeley Cite

  • Now to reference stuff on a report. Whenever you want to do that, go to References on Word and click on Mendeley Cite.
  • The green circle is where you can browse through your Collections (they’re just folders really…) and the red circle is for you to search terms in your Library.
  • You can search for the topic, authors, publishers, date of publishing, website etc. and the Mendeley Cite will browse through your Library to find what you’re looking for.
Image Description: the References tab of Mendeley Cite open on the right hand side of a Word document where the top dropdown box is for your Collections and the search box below is where you can search the your library.
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Using Mendeley Cite: Green Circle = Top Circle | Red Circle = Bottom Circle

Step 6: Adding That Citation

When you find whatever reference you’re looking for from your Library, you can add it by ticking it and clicking Insert 1 Citation.

Image Description:
Mendeley Cite open in the right hand side of word with a reference chosen by inputting a tick in the box to choose it.
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Citing: ticking it

You should then have the citation inserted automatically.

Image Description:
Mendeley Cite open in the right hand side of word with a citation inserted in the main document in APA 7 format, the citation tab displays other citation styles available.
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Citing: Inserting 1 Citation

Step 7: Changing Citation Style

  • You can then change the citation style of the document by going to the Citation Style Tab on Mendeley Cite.
  • Choose whatever citation style is required.
  • In the image below, I clicked Select another style and searched up the citation style for a Chemical Engineering Journal.
Image Description:
Mendeley Cite open in the right hand side of word with a citation inserted in the main document in Chemical Engineering Journal format, the citation tab displays other citation styles available under Select Styles with the option to search for and update the style of citation.
End of Image Description
Citing: Selecting Another Style
  • You can then cite as you type by having Mendeley Cite open.
Image Description:
Mendeley Cite open in the right hand side of word with citations inserted in the main document in Chemical Engineering Journal format, the references tab in Mendeley Cite displays other references for citation with the option to insert a bibliography.
End of Image Description
Citing As You Go

Step 8: Bibliography

  • Lastly, adding a bibliography is done by clicking More and then Insert Bibliography (see last picture in Step 7).
  • Ta-da, the bibliography is added wherever your cursor is!
Image Description:
Mendeley Cite open in the right hand side of word with bibliography inserted in the main document in Nature format, the Citation Style tab in Mendeley Cite displays other styles for citation.
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Inserting Bibliography
  • Also interesting to note that changing the citation style also changes the style of the bibliography.
  • The image above has the Nature citation style and the one below has the American Psychological Association 7th edition citation style.
  • Notice the change in both the referencing style and how they write the bibliography.
Image Description:
Mendeley Cite open in the right hand side of word with bibliography inserted in the main document in American Psychological Association 7th edition format, the Citation Style tab in Mendeley Cite displays other styles for citation.
End of Image Description
Changing Bibliography Style

And that’s it. From my experience, super helpful in organising your reading list and referencing stuff. Plus, it skips the chore of writing down references entirely.



Five Fantastic Flowcharts for Neurodiverse Brains


We recently got a small influx of emails with resources, which is absolutely wonderful! Taking from some of these recommendations, here are five flowcharts for neurodiverse brains.

There is the use of swearing in some of these resources.


1. Why Can’t I Seem to Do An Important Yet Very Simple Task?

An executive function focused flow chart by Sydni from What in the ADHD? because “When we struggle to do The Thing, it can be difficult to pinpoint the EXACT issue.” So, this flowchart is to help you workout what exactly the issue is and navigate executive dysfunction:

Image Description: Flowchart graphic titled, "Why Can't I Seem to Do An Important Yet Very Simple Task?" by What the ADHD. 

The questions are the following, starting after the statement, "You still haven't completed the task"

Do you want to do it?
If the answer is no, then it is a lack of motivation.
If the answer if yes, what are you doing right now, another task or nothing? 

If you answered "nothing lol" , have you been very busy or stressed recently? if yes then burnout, if no then ADHD paralysis.

If you answered that you were doing another task (not the task), is this task also important?
if the answer is not at all, then it is procrastination.
if the answer if yes, does the completion of this task help you make progress on The Task?
If no, then it is a lack of prioritization. If yes then stop stressin' you're right on track (but you might have some anxiety)

end of flowchart and end of image description
What In The ADHD’s Executive Dysfunction Focused Flowchart

2. You Feel Like Shit: A Self Care Game

You Feel Like Shit is an interactive selfcare guide which goes through a series of questions to break down what tasks to do and check you are looking after yourself. It is designed to be specifically useful for individuals who struggle with selfcare, executive dysfunction, and/or interpreting internal signals, such as hunger.

It’s designed to take as much of the weight off of you as possible, so each decision is very easy and doesn’t require much judgment… you can even go through this routine as soon as you wake up, as a preventative measure.


3. Anti-Procrastination Flowchart

The anti-procrastination flowchart was posted by redditor studentEnginerd in r/ADHD for feedback from other users, and you can see their suggestions here. The flowchart is colour coded into four stages and employs a range of skills which are from dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), such as opposite action. The flowchart goes from the initial realisation that you are procrastinating (red), to planning your work (orange), to overcoming mental hurdles (yellow), and, finally, beginning your work (green).

Image Description: A large flowchart to help with procrastination split into four coloured blocks.

The flowchart starts red with the statement, "you notice yourself procrastinating" and looks to work out whether you know why you are procrastinating, suggesting you try to work this out if you don't. 

the flowchart then moves to the orange section where it suggests breaking down the bigger tasks into smaller more manageable tasks.

once this is complete the flowchart is in the yellow section which looks at navigating the mental hurdles stopping you from doing the task, looking at exploring what is making you anxious about the task and suggesting things like reaching out to others for help, practicing mindfulness and self-compassion.

Lastly, there is the green coloured section which suggests "opposite action", where you start working even though it is not what you feel like doing, and also getting to work.

end of flowchart and image description.
Anti-Procrastination Flowchart by studentEnginerd

4. A Flowchart For Getting to Sleep: A Playful Take On Sleep Hygiene

It is not uncommon for individuals under the neurodiversity umbrella to suffer from higher rates of insomnia than their neurotypical peers. Knowing what to do when you struggle to sleep so often can be really tricky, so having a handy and fun flowchart to help with sleep hygiene can be a useful tool! Lindsay Braman, a Seattle-based artist, therapist, and mental health illustrator, designed a fantastic and fun flowchart for sleep you can find here.


5. Am I Having A Brain Problem Or Being A Shithead?

Okay, this flowchart has a history! It was originally a text post by adhd, Private Investigator which was made visual by Life with ADHD who turned the post into a flowchart. Okay, that all seems simple, yes, but wait, there’s more! Much like my own ADHD fuelled rambles, this flowchart seems to go on beautifully for a while! This version is a remake of Life with ADHD’s flowchart by Yuutfa to make things a bit clearer and it is really very wonderful! This flowchart it validating, and although it is ADHD-focused, it seems like it would be useful for anyone struggling with executive dysfunction.

Image Description: Flowchart titled, "Am I Having A Brain Problem or Being A Shithead?" which was designed by yuutfa@tumblr based on the following text version by ADHD Pie on Tumblr:

‘am i Having A Brain Problem or Being a Shithead’: a short procrastination checklist
aka why tf am i procrastinating on The Thing (more like a flowchart, actually)
lots of people who have executive function difficulties worry about whether they’re procrastinating on a task out of laziness/simply wanting to be a jerk or mental struggles. this checklist might help you figure out which it is at any given time! (hint: it’s almost never laziness or being a jerk.) (obligatory disclaimer: this is just what works for me! something different might work better for you.)

1) do I honestly intend to start the task despite my lack of success?

yes: it’s a Brain Problem. next question
no: it’s shitty to say one thing & do another. better be honest with myself & anyone expecting me to do the task.
2) am I fed, watered, well-rested, medicated properly, etc?

yes: next question
no: guess what? this is the real next task
3) does the idea of starting the task make me feel scared or anxious?

yes: Anxiety Brain. identify what’s scaring me first.
no: next question
4) do I know how to start the task?

yes: next question
no: ADHD Brain. time to make an order of operations list.
5) do I have everything I need to start the task?

yes: next question
no: ADHD Brain lying to me about the steps again, dangit. first task is ‘gather the materials’.
6) why am i having a hard time switching from my current task to this new task?

i’m having fun doing what i’m doing: it’s okay to have fun doing a thing! if task is time-sensitive, go to next question.
i have to finish doing what i’m doing: might be ADHD brain. can I actually finish the current task or will I get trapped in a cycle? does this task really need to be finished?
the next task will be boring/boring-er than the current task: ADHD brain. re-think the next task. what would make it exciting? what am I looking forward to?
I might not have enough time to complete the task: ADHD brain wants to finish everything it starts. (if task is time-sensitive, go to next question)
i just want to make the person who asked me to do it angry: sounds like anxiety brain trying to punish itself, because I know I’ll be miserable if someone is angry at me. why do i think I deserve punishment?
no, I seriously want to piss them off: okay, i’m being a shithead
7) have I already procrastinated so badly that I now cannot finish the task in time?

yes: ADHD brain is probably caught in a guilt-perfection cycle. since I can’t have the task done on time, i don’t even want to start.
reality check: having part of a thing done is almost always better than none of a thing done. if I can get an extension, having part of it done will help me keep from stalling out until the extension deadline. i’ll feel better if I at least try to finish it.

no, there’s still a chance to finish on time: ADHD brain thinks that I have all the time in the world, but the truth is I don’t. 
reality check: if i’m having fun doing what I’m doing, I can keep doing it, but I should probably set a timer & ask someone to check on me to make sure I start doing the task later today.

8) I’ve completed the checklist and still don’t know what’s wrong!

probably wasn’t honest enough with myself. take one more look.
if I’m still mystified, ask a friend to help me talk it out

End of Image Description
Executive Dysfunction Focused Flowchart by Yuutfa

Disclaimer

Although these are useful resources and tools for working through tricky things, they are not a replacement for support and guidance from a trained professional.

The Author

This post was made from resources recommended which were emailed in by wonderfully neurodiverse individuals, with the exception of the first flowchart from What the ADHD which ally also added. The resources were pieced together to post by ally, who is autistic and had ADHD, and has her own personal blog, pally.ally.writes where they write on psychology, neurodiversity, and life.