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Navigating Executive Dysfunction

Strategies for a more accessible remote learning experience

The transition to online learning as a result of the pandemic has impacted every student, all in unique ways; many students have reported difficulties accessing academic accommodations, confusing delivery methods, and a general lack of organization within their courses. 

These problems can be especially difficult for students who experience executive dysfunction. As one of these students, I understand first-hand how online learning can impact productivity. I hope to draw on my own experiences to provide some strategies for combatting and adapting to these challenges.  Of course, I am only one of many who has executive dysfunction, and my experiences do not embody the perspectives of everyone with these lived experiences. (I am also drawing on a number of sources to try to encapsulate as many experiences as possible). 

However, I also recognize the limitations of these conversations within the context of capitalism. After providing my advice on combatting executive dysfunction, I’ll discuss the ways in which our current economic system limits disabled and neurodivergent communities.

What is executive dysfunction?

Executive functioning skills are those that help people plan, follow through with, complete, and move between tasks.

These skills can include:

  • Planning and organization
  • Concentrating 
  • Analyzing and processing information
  • Controlling emotions and behavior
  • Memory
  • Time management
  • Multitasking
  • Problem-solving

Executive dysfunction occurs when one has trouble with these areas. Executive dysfunction is not a disorder in itself – everyone deals with executive dysfunction to some degree at some point in their life, especially when trying to learn or work in a new environment. However, increased difficulties with executive functioning often occur in conjunction with or as a result of brain injuries, dyslexia, ADHD, autism, anxiety disorders, and depression

Executive dysfunction can impact people in many different ways and have an effect on different areas of life. For me, executive dysfunction can feel like having a never-ending to do list that disappears from my brain the moment that I sit down to get started on my work. Another common experience is what I describe as “buffering brain”: this feeling that I can’t start a task because I am still loading up, but can’t bring myself to do anything about it. It feels like procrastinating, except you can’t get started, even if you want to. Many people with executive dysfunction describe this feeling as being “stuck”. 

Executive dysfunction doesn’t just impact productivity at work or school – for many people, executive dysfunction can prevent them from starting tasks that they want or need to do, like watching TV, calling a friend, even eating or sleeping.

What this means during online learning

Online learning impacts each individual differently. In terms of executive functioning, the transition to online learning can affect the things that help us learn, like routines, organization, and maintaining a positive work environment.

Online learning can require a lot more self-regulation and independent organization than in-person classes. Rather than showing up at the same building twice a week and participating in normal class sessions, which may occasionally include a test or quiz, many of us are now balancing discussion groups, a mix of synchronous and asynchronous lectures, posting on the myCourses discussion board, group project meetings, scheduled quizzes, take-home exams, and other tasks for which we have to hold ourselves accountable with little guidance. For me, it has been easy to lose track of deadlines and let tasks slip through the cracks if I don’t stay extremely organized.

Building new strategies and coping mechanisms as well as adjusting to new learning formats require use of our executive functioning skills, meaning that online learning can be particularly difficult for people who face executive dysfunction. 

Strategies to manage executive dysfunction

So how can we address the increase in difficulties with executive function that comes with online learning? I have compiled some ideas from what works for me and tips from other people who experience executive dysfunction. Not every idea or strategy will work for everyone, but hopefully you can find something that helps you.

  1. Creating a working and/or learning environment that suits your needs

When working at home, it can be hard to stay focused, especially for those of us who are used to studying at a library or cafe. Most of us don’t have the money for a separate office in our apartments or making grand changes like purchasing a standing desk, but we can make little adjustments to make our working environment more suitable. In her video “Executive Function Deficit Bedroom organization Hacks,” YouTuber Autistic Tyla outlines some ways you can organize a room that may be easier when you’re experiencing executive dysfunction. One that I’ve adopted is using bins and cups for things like fidget toys and writing utensils, as putting objects away in a pencil case requires more deliberate task-shifting, which can throw me completely off of my course.

Creating a work environment can also involve paying attention to your sensory needs. I find it easier to focus when I am fidgeting, so I always keep fidget toys on my desk. I also use noise-cancelling headphones because I have trouble filtering noise and can become easily distracted by external sounds. A popular chrome extension among people who experience executive dysfunction is Mercury Reader, which eliminates distracting elements from web pages and presents a plain-text version of any given article with one click. 

As an individual, there may be other ways for you to make yourself comfortable in your work environment and eliminate distractions. It may be helpful to keep a list of what generally tends to distract you, so that you may work on eliminating it from your work environment.

  1. Having a physical to-do list

One symptom of executive dysfunction that many people experience is having difficulty with short-term memory and prioritizing tasks. This means that we often forget important tasks or leave them to the last minute. Having a physical to-do list where you write down all of the tasks that you need to complete is one way to mitigate this. Organizing this list can be difficult, though. Although I don’t use it anymore, I found the Todoist app helpful, as it has some tools for categorizing and labelling that can help organize your tasks. However, many of these options only come with the premium version, which costs $5.50 per month, making it inaccessible to some. Other people may prefer to use a bullet journal or other physical organizer. Autistic* YouTuber b blushes has made a number of videos about how they use their planner.

Another method of creating a to-do list that I have personally found helpful is that presented in this TikTok by Michal Rogers. In the video, she explains a process of getting out of what she calls the “ADHD brain spiral” where she divides a piece of paper into three categories: “things that need to be done today, things that need to be done ever, and things in my brain.” She explains that this helps her organize her thoughts and allows her to see what tasks are immediately important. As students who may be juggling various tasks without knowing where to start, this method can be helpful for getting — and staying — on track.

  1. Developing a routine

Having a consistent routine can be helpful in preventing the feeling of getting stuck. As someone who struggles with completing basic tasks on my worst days, I find creating a routine with everything, even the most mundane tasks, very helpful. Some people find using a bullet journal, whiteboard, or planner helpful in this. One app that I use, which has also been suggested by autistic influencers like Paige Layle and Yo Samdy Sam, is Tiimo. The app acts as a visual daily planner and allows individuals to create daily routines and checklists. Alongside work and academic tasks, I schedule basic tasks like eating, showering, and brushing my teeth in Tiimo. Tiimo keeps me on track More than anything I’ve tried – and I’ve tried a lot of different planners, organizational systems, and apps. The app does have a subscription cost, however, which may be a barrier to some individuals. 

  1. Turning to your community

A number of community spaces exist that allow people who experience executive dysfunction to learn from each other and share their experiences. The Facebook group Executive dysfunction life hacks is a place where people can share and ask for tips on executive functioning. Executive dysfunction is also often discussed on TikTok, YouTube, and Twitter. Some of my personal favourite TikTokers who discuss executive dysfunction are adhadult, princessaspien, and domesticblisters

For me, seeing that other people shared my experiences was life-changing. While being able to get advice on managing my difficulties is also important, being in a community has helped me recognize that I am not alone and that the way I feel is much more common than I once thought. Community-specific groups, such as those on Facebook and Discord, can be a great place to connect with other people. Some that I’ve had good experiences with or heard good things about are autisticqueen’s Discord server and Facebook groups Actually Autistic and Trans, sounds like you forgot disabled people but ok, and A group where anxious people ask for simple advice and get helpful answers.

  1. Consulting other resources

McGill’s Office for Students with Disabilities offers resources on topics such as note-taking, remote learning, and memory. Although I have not used these resources personally, they may be helpful to students experiencing executive dysfunction.

A team of autistic adults at the Autistic Self Advocacy Network have created a handbook about navigating college for autistic students. While it does not focus solely on executive functioning, it does cover related areas and may be helpful to both autistic and non-autistic people who face executive dysfunction. It should be noted, however, that some parts of this resource are specific to the United States.

The constraints of living in a neurotypical society

As much as we can use strategies to combat executive dysfunction, a lot of these issues also come down to living in a society that is not built for neurodivergent people. 

Neurodivergent: a term coined by autistic activists to describe having a brain that functions in ways diverging from dominant societal norms. It is often used in opposition to “neurotypical,” which refers to the dominant and accepted neurotype. Neurodivergence usually refers to those who have autism, dyslexia, dyscalculia, epilepsy, hyperlexia, dyspraxia, ADHD, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and/or Tourette syndrome, but this is not an exhaustive list.

Productivity within capitalism is defined by the use of executive functioning skills in a way that may not come naturally to neurodivergent individuals. In order to truly combat difficulties with executive functioning, we need to restructure society in a way that is accessible beyond the neurotypical norm. 

Further, as explained by Gillian Giles in The Body is not an Apology, interventions and support for people with disabilities often focus on achieving ideal productivity within a capitalist society, such as performing well in school, maintaining a job, and reproducing. While I have written this article to share ways that I am able to be productive within the constraints posed by our current economic system, as I think that this will help people in navigating our current world, I truly believe that liberation for neurodivergent and disabled communities will only come with the abolishment of capitalism as a whole. 

A radical reimagining of society requires us to think about our value beyond our labour – something that cannot happen while we continue to put emphasis on our ability to participate in the workforce.

* When speaking about the autistic community in this article, I have used identity-first language (“autistic person” rather than “person with autism”). While this contradicts the language often used in professional and clinical contexts, it corresponds with the preference of much of the autistic community. For more information on identity-first language, see these articles from News @ Northeastern and The Mighty.