Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Executive Function Fail (with pictures)

I'd have to say that one of the tougher parts of being Autistic is having so much executive dysfunction. But before we talk about dysfunction, let's talk about what executive functioning is. The first sentence of the Wikipedia article on executive functions says, "Executive functions is an umbrella term for cognitive processes that regulate, control, and manage other cognitive processes, such as planning, working memory, attention, problem solving, verbal reasoning, inhibition, mental flexibility, task switching, and initiation and monitoring of actions."

So basically, every time you complete any sort of task, you're relying on your executive functioning skills. This could be anything from cooking to getting dressed, from doing a math problem to following a map. Any task that has steps (i.e., do this, then do this) requires executive function skills. It's no secret that Autistic people tend to have executive dysfunction. This dysfunction affects various things in varying degrees, and of course, like everything, it varies from person to person.

My executive dysfunction really shows up when it comes to cleaning, cooking, and organizing. These are the two main things that make independent living quite difficult for me. Cooking, cleaning, and organizing require too many steps, too much planning, too much working memory, too much mental flexibility, and requires me to initiate and monitor too many actions...and forces me to try and make too many decisions. It's like there's a short in my brain. Whenever I have to attempt to do a cooking or cleaning task, it's like my brain just freezes up and fizzes out. It's not that I'm lazy. I'm not. It's not that I'm not smart. I am. It's just that for whatever reason, Autism really affects this part of my neurology.

Case in point: I recently moved out of an apartment that I shared with a roommate back into my parent's house. I did this for a variety of reasons...mainly to save money. The problem is this: At my apartment, I had my own bedroom that had a lot of stuff in it. But I still had a bedroom at my parents house that had a lot of stuff in it. So when I moved out of the apartment, I had to somehow figure out how to squeeze two bedroom's worth of stuff into one bedroom. It's not working. I put the big items in a storage unit (furniture, etc), but a lot of stuff I just need to sort through, organize, and pack into boxes or containers before I can store it.

It's not going well.

Basically, I just don't know where to put things. I have a couple boxes filled with random items sitting on top of each other. I need to sort through them, take out what I'll want to use, find somewhere to put those items, and then pack the rest away. Random clothes that I don't know where to put get stacked up against the wall. Small items get tossed onto the dresser.

I have long rectangular container filled with old school items and book. Papers, notebooks, books I read for English classes, music name it, it's in there. And I have no idea what to do with it. So there it sits. Also pictured is a roll-along-backpack that I have yet to unpack from my beach trip. And of course some random shoes and a hoodie. (Note: putting things ways (and unpacking) requires SO MUCH executive functioning too.)

All the papers that aren't in that aforementioned container have been tossed onto my desk. Some should just be thrown away, but some I want to keep. But I don't know where to put them. And I don't know how to initiate the sorting process.

Lastly, the book pile. I've rest all of these books. Most of them I don't have a desire to reread, but of course I want to keep them, because I enjoyed them, and I like having a substantial book library. But again, where do they go? The small bookshelf I already have in my room is chock full and overflowing. I don't have room for another piece of furniture. I need to get them more organized...maybe bring in another container to put them them in the attic for now? I don't know. Again, don't know how to initiate this process or where to start.

Basically, I need to do some serious organizing. I need boxes and containers. But what's almost as difficult as the organizing process is the decision making process. What do I keep and what do I store? What if I end up storing something that I end up needing to use? How do I predict whether or not I'll want to access or use something? All this decision making stuff involves executive function too. AND IT'S NOT WORKING. So here I sit, day in and day out, in this messy chaos. Not because I'm lazy. Not because I'm procrastinating. But because I'm Autistic, and my executive functioning skills are poop.

Oh, I just found out that there are these people called professional organizers. Hmm. It might be worthwhile to look into this...

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Minority Experience: Opposing Messages

"What characterizes a member of a minority group is that he is forced to see himself as both exceptional and insignificant, marvelous and awful, good and evil." --Norman Mailer 

When I first read this quote, I lost my breath for a bit, because the truth of this knocked it out of me. This is profoundly, profoundly accurate.

Members of minority groups constantly receive opposing messages, and as we try to create our concept of self, we have to sort through them and figure out what to believe and what to discard. The danger here is that when a person hears that they're bad over and over and over again, more often than not, those messages are louder than the ones saying that they're good.

Of course, the LGBTQ community constantly hears and reads things about how "awful" and "evil" they are. There's Westboro Baptist Church telling us that even God hates us and that we'll burn in hell. We're victims of hate crimes and bullied to death. We're told that our voices are insignificant and that we don't deserve the same rights as everyone else. We're forced into positions of second class citizenship.

On the other hand, we as a community (along with our allies) work to combat these messages of our insignificance, awfulness, and evilness. One main way we do this is through Pride events. We celebrate our existence, because there are still so many who don't. We know we are worthy of equal treatment and worthy of respect. On our good days, we know that we are marvelous and exceptional people, and we try to remind each other of that. And we hope that somehow our voices are loud enough to drown out the others.

The same goes for being Autistic. At worst, we hear that we are awful and evil, and capable of committing mass murder because we're lacking in empathy, and that we should be exterminated. And sometimes the best we hear is that we're mediocre and insignificant, that we need to be cured and changed and made into something normal and significant. We hear that no, we're not evil per se, but we still should not be here. We need to be fixed.

The voices of Autistic self-advocates and our allies try to dispel these lies. We know that we are exceptional, and we are capable of doing great things. We know that we offer a unique perspective and that we are valuable. We know that at our core, we are good and guileless, and that we are caring and sympathetic towards others. We are marvelous, and we are beautiful, and we make the world a better place. We say these things, and we remind each other of these things. And again, we hope that our voices will be loud enough to drown out the others.

This is the experience of the minority. This is what I deal with, on two fronts. I know that I have the right to exist and be accepted, but those competing messages, the bad ones, they still eat away at my psyche. On good days, I'm strong and confident despite these negative messages. But on weak days, I question myself, and I waffle, and I feel deflated and defeated.

I hope that I live to see the day in which I don't have to try and make sense of these two competing messages. I don't want to fight for the right to be viewed as good. I want to live to see the day when everyone, regardless of their minority status, is taught to see themselves as exceptional, marvelous, and good.