Common things people with autism find difficult
Understanding executive functioning
Executive functioning refers to the mental and cognitive abilities that help people to engage in goal-directed activities. Executive functioning helps to direct our actions and control our behaviours. It helps us to self-motivate, to work towards and achieve our long-term goals, as well as prepare for future tasks and events.
When experiencing executive dysfunction, people will struggle with organisation and self-regulation. It can also hinder you in accomplishing goals.
What is executive dysfunction?
People who experience executive dysfunction often have more trouble with attention, working memory, mental processing, and verbal fluency.
When a person has such difficulties, it can affect their ability to organise, get started on and stay on task. They can struggle with planning, problem-solving, organisation and time management. Often the person can experience a sense of paralysis associated with undertaking a task, sometimes referred to as task inertia. Even though they want to get started, they are unable to make any progress, leaving them frustrated and overwhelmed.
When a person is experiencing executive dysfunction, they can also struggle with misplacing items (e.g. Where are my keys? Or phone etc.)
You may have executive dysfunction if you experience difficulty with:
What can you do?
Self-monitoring is a good practice as it keeps you in check. Are you keeping on task? Is there something that is holding you back in doing what you are supposed to be doing?
You can ask yourself: Am I being distracted internally or externally?
Once you recognise the distraction(s) you can make changes. Distractions can be things like daydreaming, looking out the window, checking social media or thinking of what you want for dinner. You can take a short walk to help shift your foggy mind, move away from the window, turn off your phone and plan in advance what you are having for dinner.
Planning and scheduling strategies are musts for many autistics. They help not just with executive functioning but also to reduce anxiety of the unexpected. Being prepared as best you can will help in many aspects of life (e.g. at school, at work and at home).
Masking and camouflaging
Autistic people often mask and camouflage because they feel uncomfortable about showing their true selves – or to avoid standing out in the crowd. This occurs due to a lack of understanding and acceptance of difference. The autistic person feels they have to hide who they really are in fear of being seen as odd, weird or strange.
Camouflaging is generally seen as trying to merge into the background, not to be seen. You may not want to join the conversation as you are not interested in idle chit-chat or gossip. Or you may feel afraid, not knowing what to say or how to be part of the conversation.
You may be the person who is on the edge of the room at social events, desperately trying not to be noticed and drawn into a group of people. Groups can make you feel uncomfortable – someone may ask you questions or want you to talk about yourself.
Masking on the other hand is putting on a ‘mask’ to suit the people that are around you. For example, many autistics put on a ‘mask’ at work to try and fit in with colleagues. Putting on a ‘mask’ helps you hide traits that may be perceived as inadequacies by your co-workers.
You want to appear confident in your job when in reality you may be struggling to understand what you have been asked to do. You may be afraid to ask for clarification in fear of being viewed as not competent. You may have many ‘masks’ and change the ‘mask’ you wear in each situation.
Many autistic women mask due to peer pressures to fit in. The pressure can be enormous – difference is still perceived as a negative. You may not realise you are trying to fit into a dynamic that is not designed for you.
People who ‘get’ you
When you are with people who ‘get’ you – who truly understand and accept you – you are more likely not to mask and camouflage. You feel safe to be yourself without judgement. Acceptance of yourself, that difference is okay, can release you from the mental burden of feeling defective or broken. Find your tribe and allow yourself to be truly you. Being yourself is freeing and incredibly good for your mental wellbeing.
You can feel extremely tired, exhausted, suffer from mental fatigue, and brain fog, when experiencing burnout. You may have increased levels of irritability and trouble socialising.
Levels of anxiety can increase significantly due to feeling overwhelmed. You may have reduced capacity to work or do usual tasks. You can also become highly sensitive to sensory input (or even more so than normal). It can be extremely difficult to function and concentrate, all of which adds to your mental fatigue.
Alternatively, you can experience a decrease in sensory perception[PA1] . Experiences that were previously pleasing or invigorating no longer fulfil or re-energise you. You may be bordering on or experiencing a form of depression.
You may also experience a decrease in language skills and communication (e.g. your usual interactions such as social media, texting, keeping in contact with family or friends). These are signs you are becoming withdrawn and turning inwards to protect yourself from burnout. You are literally shutting down.
The length, frequency and severity of shutdowns can increase when in burnout. You may also have meltdowns – burnout reduces your ability to self-regulate your emotions and feelings. It can be extremely difficult to keep your emotional state intact when you are overwhelmed, tired, irritable and depressed – to keep it all together.
You may feel guilty that you are not able to do the things that you used to do or have reduced capacity. You may become more forgetful (e.g. miss appointments).
There will be an increase in executive dysfunction when in burnout.
What causes burnout?
Burnout occurs when multiple stressors compound over time until a breaking point is reached. Here are some examples:
Social skills (also called interpersonal skills) are those used to interact and communicate with other people. These include:
Strong interpersonal skills enable you to talk to, socialise and work with all types of people and give you the ability to communicate effectively and develop relationships.
What do social/communication skills consist of?
Showing interest in others
Showing interest in others is a skill that many people tend to forget. When you are having a conversation, showing interest in the other person makes them feel they are being listened to – that you are engaged and interested in what they have to say.
Maintaining eye contact
Many autistic people would say a big firm 'No!' to this.
This is not a useful skill if you are torturing yourself looking at another person because it is expected. Many autistics find trying to look at a person while they are talking incredibly difficult. It can feel painful when someone is looking into your eyes and can be difficult to concentrate on what the other person is saying.
We all have different ways of listening and understanding when in conversation. How do you avoid the other person thinking you are being rude or you are disinterested in them?
Try picking a point that is near their eyes rather than directly looking at them (e.g. their chin, their forehead, or just past the side of their head).
Another thing you can do is be upfront with the person – tell them you listen better by not looking directly at them and need to look away.
Speaking clearly and in an acceptable tone
Many autistic people are often unaware of how loud or unclearly they are speaking, especially when they are highly interested in a topic of conversation. Their tone of voice may become unacceptable to the other person.
It is good to check in with yourself as you are speaking to see if your volume is increasing or is too loud for the environment. The same goes for talking too softly. Clues can be the other person asking you to regularly repeat yourself or saying that they didn’t quite understand what you are saying.
Choose effective communication channels
Many autistic people find it easier to communicate via email or digital media as it allows them time to process and think about what they wish to convey. One downside of messaging like this can be misinterpretation by the recipient. Emails may come across as direct and blunt, whereas the autistic person may think they are being clear and direct.
Choose a communication channel that works for you, and for your family and friends.
It is important to have patience when dealing with others although some autistic people find this challenging. Try to let others finish explaining themselves before jumping in. This will help to avoid misunderstanding and confrontation.
Many autistic people experience some difficulty in processing everyday sensory information. They can be either hyper-sensitive (over-reactive) or hypo-sensitive (under-reactive) to sensory input, or experience fragmented or distorted perceptions. A person’s responses to sensory experiences may fluctuate from one day to the next. These sensory differences can affect behaviour and can have a profound effect on a person’s life.
The way our brain (frontal lobes) processes sensory information determines our experience. Research has shown that sensory processing differences cannot be eliminated or cured. However, it is possible for you to develop coping strategies that over time mitigate the distress associated with sensory processing difference.
Sensory issues can lead to feeling overwhelmed – to meltdowns or shutdowns. Conversely a sensory seeker may need help to stay safe and not cause disruption. Gaining a better understanding of your sensory issues will help you and identify the supports you need.