Whose Planet Is It Anyway?

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

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.



  • I couldn't agree more! Being absent minded is not a disease state. It's the way some people, and not just autistics by any means tend to be. I makes a big difference if we choose to call that being contemplative, or being a lateral thinker, rather than jumping to the use of executive dysfunction just because a person happens to have a particular diagnosis.

    By Blogger VAB, at 1:38 PM  

  • Damn! That's my subject for tonight! But I think you're right about excuses, I use all of them, all the time, as often as possible, not for my own children, but for myself. I just need someone to blame for being grumpy!

    By Blogger mcewen, at 1:56 PM  

  • I agree that being super focused is overrated. There is something right about letting one’s mind wonder. It is during times of free association that some remarkable discoveries have occurred. Our thoughts live in many different parts of our brains; in that way, our minds can play with ideas as one might play with blocks, Legos, or puzzles. You pick and choose, and then change them around, which can only be if thoughts are dispersed freely in the mind. Then, if you want, you can mix them all up and start over—fun times.

    There is another blog I enjoy visiting, which addressed that there PMS thing recently. You might get a kick out of it. Yours truly let the women know what it was all about. If you dare to visit, it is located at http://www.outinleftfield.com/2007/03/dont-believe-hype.html

    By Blogger Goader, at 4:08 PM  

  • Goader: I just checked out your link. LOL. I am no fan of Big Pharma, as you might have noticed, but even I wouldn't go as far as to accuse them of inventing PMS to sell pills. Women have been complaining about being "on the rag" ever since the days when women really had to use rags.

    She does have some good advice about diet and exercise though, and I'll admit I overindulged in chocolate last week...

    By Blogger abfh, at 7:38 PM  

  • Executive Dysfunction is not the same as being easily distracted. I know because I have it. It's having difficulties making decisions and plans. I agree however that it could be used to discriminate against aspies like PMS was used against women but spreading misconceptions about it makes it worse. Those of use who have it should be looking for ways to cope with it instead of blaming all our problems on it or in your case denying that it's even a problem.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:07 PM  

  • I think that being easily distracted is a characteristic of a neural network that is closer to the percolation threshold.

    The percolation threshold is the point as you change connectivity between nodes in a network (like the brain), where the first infinite connected space occurs. It is a true "critical point", where the properties of the network change exponentially with how close to the critical point one is. The neural network becomes more "resonsive" to change, ie becomes more "distractable".

    I think when people are under "stress", their neural network becomes less connected, and so they become more distractable. When the connectivity drops below the critical percolation threshold, the functionality falls apart, a "melt-down".

    I think that PMS is a low NO state, and that is what causes the reduced connectivity and increased distractablity.

    I would predict (but have no experimental evidence), that the threshold of stress that leads to a "melt-down" would be lower during the time characterized by PMS.

    By Blogger daedalus2u, at 9:21 PM  

  • Now that I have an autistic child, one of the stange things that happens to me is associates and family trying to "diagnose" me with disorders (which seems to me to be just one way to "blame" me for Joey being somehow "not normal".) "Executive dysfunction" is one of the several problems I hear about that I am supposed to "have." Personally, I just think the pregnancy hormones scrambled my brain, and that its insulting to people who have real executive dysfunction to blame my rat's nest of a house on it. :P

    By Blogger Joeymom, at 11:24 PM  

  • It's a tradeoff. You trade being medicalised for understanding for the (otherwise incomprehensible) fact that it took you three hours to get up out of your chair.

    By Blogger elmindreda, at 5:57 AM  

  • Anonymous wrote:

    Executive Dysfunction is not the same as being easily distracted. I know because I have it. It's having difficulties making decisions and plans.

    Yes, you're right. When I wrote this post, I had in mind the difficulty of making the decision to get back to what one was doing after being distracted (such as, for example, trying to get back to one's work after the distraction of reading blogs), but the term has a broader application to decision-making in general.

    I am not arguing that it is never a problem. Rather, I'm saying that it may or may not be a problem, depending on the surrounding circumstances, and that using negative terms like "dysfunction" is just going to make those circumstances worse.

    By Blogger abfh, at 11:12 AM  

  • If your brain wasn't addled by mercury, you wouldn't have these problems.

    By Blogger Fore Sam, at 9:24 AM  

  • You've given us strong evidence to the contrary, Fore Sam. No matter how many detoxifying supplements you gulp down, your brain stays hopelessly stuck in its mercury hypothesis infinite loop. Even the most obsessive autistic person would have moved on to something more sensible by now...

    By Blogger abfh, at 2:27 PM  

  • ABFH, I'll move on after chelation cures my kid. It might take a long time.

    By Blogger Fore Sam, at 8:56 PM  

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