An Execution for a Dysfunction
Place de la Révolution, 1793
I had a few ideas for blog posts last week, but I never did get them written because I couldn't focus well, the words didn't flow, I kept getting distracted, and I felt out of sorts generally.
Just another unfortunate autistic person struggling with the hardships of executive dysfunction?
Well, no, actually... it was (with apologies to any male readers who may think this is too much information) PMS, which got me feeling so cranky that I didn't dare try to blog, lest my readers conclude that my net nickname was all too well deserved.
That left me contemplating the large number of autistics and other neuro-atypical folks out there who seem to have developed a new fad, in the past few years, of blaming every lapse of attention and failure to complete a task on "executive dysfunction."
They're starting to sound just like the people of a certain age who, every time they misplace their car keys, declare that they must be having "a senior moment." It makes me wonder: Why would anyone choose to go through life with such a negative self-image?
And of course, it's not just their own personal image that suffers when they go around using terms like "disorder," "deficit," and "dysfunction" in reference to the natural workings of their brain. These words and the corresponding mental images soon become firmly fixed in society's impressions of the group as a whole. The stereotypes become pervasive and all-encompassing: Old folks are senile and useless. Better not hire an autistic because he's so dysfunctional that he'll never get any work done. Et cetera.
So why are any of us using such language?
I think it's similar to how women talk about the woes of PMS; they're looking for a bit of understanding and commiseration for what is, in fact, a very real cause of distraction and other assorted issues. But there's a major difference: Women, at least in modern industrialized societies, are assumed to be capable of holding responsible jobs and meeting production expectations, despite the occasional difficulties caused by PMS. With autistics, the prevailing assumptions run the other way.
To be clear, I'm not arguing that there is no factual basis for what the psychologists have labeled as executive dysfunction (which technically refers, not to the broad characteristics of distractibility or procrastination as it has come to be popularly used, but to a significant lag between the cognitive processes of deciding to do something and actually doing it—many thanks to Shan of Facing the Morning for suggesting that it would be useful to edit this post to clarify the proper definition). It is indeed true that many autistic folks take a long time to mentally "shift gears" from one task to another. We walk into a room, stop for a moment and wonder what we're doing there, look out the window at the pretty dandelions, ponder the life cycle of the bumblebee that just landed on one of the dandelions, and only then do we move on to the task we were supposed to be doing.
But I am disputing—and very strongly—the notion that this particular neurological configuration is a defect or dysfunction. I often make interesting serendipitous discoveries or have useful thoughts while I'm "supposed to be" doing something else. Historically, major advances in science and technology have sprung from fortuitous moments of distraction. Archimedes, while daydreaming in his bathtub, suddenly realized that the displacement of water could be used to measure an object's weight. When an apple fell on Newton's head, he got distracted by it and stopped to ponder gravitational equations, rather than just going back to whatever else he was supposed to be doing at the time.
To put it another way, although some of us take a long time to get back to our work after becoming distracted, this is a natural cognitive variation and is not inherently a problem, in and of itself. Although it's often seen as a problem, I'd say that most of our difficulties are the result of a mismatch between our natural free-flowing thought processes and the overly demanding structure of modern society, which expects every minute of our days to be planned and optimized. The fault is in these unrealistic expectations, not in ourselves.
So let's have some more self-respect—and send all those insulting terms with "dys" and "dis" prefixes off to Madame Guillotine.