One of the things that is common among folks with Aspergers is that they lack executive function skills. What’s executive function? It’s basically being able to see the forest from the trees. You can look at a tree in a forest and comprehend that it’s part of a greater whole. What’s different for someone with Aspergers is that they can see a tree, and another tree, and another tree and never really think that these are part of something bigger.
This has shown itself in my own life. I can come up with some idea and I can even execute it, but several important pieces get left out. Before I give an example from my own life, I want to share something written by Austrailan blogger Gavin Bollard about how a decreased executive function makes itself known in a child with Aspergers:
A parent of a child with good executive functioning might expect to be able to say “get yourself ready for school” or even have their child realise that because it’s Tuesday, they need to get ready and wear their sports uniform. This would imply self initiation of tasks.
The getting ready for school task includes sub-tasks such as;
- Getting your pyjamas off
- Putting your pyjamas under the pillow ready for “after school”
- Putting underpants on
- Deciding whether to wear a sports or normal uniform
- Putting pants on
- Putting a shirt on
- Putting a tie, headband, ribbons etc on
- Putting socks on
- Washing Hands
- Having Breakfast
- Washing hands and face
- Brushing Teeth
- Putting Lunch in the school bag
- Putting Books/Diary in the school bag
- Putting Shoes on
- Getting outside on time.
A child with poor executive functioning will see these all as entirely separate tasks. They know that “going to school” is part of the big picture but they won’t be able to sequence the tasks and they won’t self-start or self-monitor. If there are any distractions available they will quickly become distracted and will fail to complete the task. If anything changes, for example, if their favourite breakfast cereal isn’t available, then they will not have the flexibility to be able to cope with change. They will not be able to do tasks out of order; for example getting their bags packed before breakfast and the entire “getting ready for school” process will stop. The inflexibility may even trigger a meltdown.
The important thing here (at least in my view) is that the child sees all of these duties as separate tasks. The child may not see that this is all part of the whole, the big picture.
So to my example. After Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, I chatted with a pastor in Houston. He said that what was needed were towels. So, I was able to get people at my church to donate towels. I was able to get people to come and pack the towels. Everything seemed to be going well. But I forgot something. Somehow those towels had to get to Houston and someone was going to have to pay the shipping bill. That never occurred to me. Long story short, the office manager at the church was stuck trying to figure this all out and was a bit upset at me, for good reason.
My poor executive function skills are still a problem today and I still have a problem with seeing all the pieces of the puzzle, let alone seeing the whole puzzle. I do work at trying to improve my skills and try to think through everything, but it’s hard- my brain is wired differently.
None of this is to excuse myself. As a pastor, you have to be able to see the big picture and the separate pieces. On some level, I get that. But even when I try to slow down and plan things out and make sure to not skip something important, I can feel my brain pulling me away from that. My brain is geared to do things in its odd way. One can learn better executive functioning skills, but for an Apsie it’s hard work.
By the way, I’m linking to some images that explain executive function and how it plays itself out in the life of someone with Aspergers. Hopefully it will give you a good picture.
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