What Is Executive Functioning?

You have probably read somewhere that one of the main features of autism is weak executive functioning. But how many of you really understand what executive functioning actually is? And how does it explain some of the features of autism?

The purpose of the executive functioning of the brain is to prevent all thoughts from coming to the surface and being expressed. As a result, a great many of your thoughts–perhaps most of your thoughts, never come to consciousness. Others sort of exist on the periphery, but never get expressed or said. Your executive function allows you to be social precisely to the degree that it censors you even before the thoughts are made conscious.

You can think of “thoughts” in the following ways: there are

  1. Thoughts you don’t have
  2. Thoughts you have but are censored by the executive functioning before they come to conscious awareness
  3. Thoughts you have but censor consciously
  4. Thoughts you say

If you are wondering what the difference is between 1. and 2., congratulations, you’re not autistic! The average person who doesn’t, say, think about cheating on his wife may either be experiencing 1. or 2., but will never know it. If an autistic man doesn’t think about cheating on his wife, it’s because he’s actually not having thoughts about cheating on his wife. It’s 1. or nothing. The weak executive functioning means unwanted thoughts will arise and intrude on one’s thoughts. So those of us on the spectrum who never think about cheating on our wives sleep with a clear conscience.

Now, the problem with having a weak executive function isn’t so much that you aren’t actively suppressing much if anything at all in your unconscious; no, the problem is that your head is full of a constant stream of thoughts, and with a weak censor, you’re bound to say more than a few of them. Many of us learn to run thoughts by ourselves before we speak, but that presupposes we aren’t being pressured to say something right now. If we’re delayed in speaking, it’s because we’re making sure what we plan to say is appropriate. Put us under any sort of pressure, make us uncomfortable, and you’re bound to hear what we really think. And that, of course, can be . . . awkward!

If there is anything good about a weak executive function, it’s that such “leakiness” tends to lead to rather creative thoughts. When writing a poem, play, or prose fiction, having a weak censor is actually a boon. All kinds of crazy thoughts come to mind, and many of them are quite interesting from an artistic perspective—or from the perspective of technological innovation. All those crazy thoughts are thoughts everyone is having—but only those on the spectrum aren’t censoring the overwhelming majority of them. If you wonder why I claimed autistics may be among the most creative, now you know why.

 

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