Improving Executive Function

Tali Shenfield’s Child Psychology Blog has a post on improving executive function. I have written on executive function before (here and here and here and here) but this post goes into greater detail about all the things affected by executive function, including:

  • achieving goals we set
  • achieving goals others set for us
  • short term memory
  • planning
  • organization skills
  • emotional self-regulation

Shenfield also points out that executive functioning is on a gradient, meaning a 12 year old could have the emotional maturity of a 9 year old. Or, as I’ve told my wife, Daniel (8) has the emotional maturity of his brother, who is 5, while his cognitive abilities are much more advanced. But with executive functioning essentially making him “act 5,” most people don’t realize how advanced he is in many other ways.

I have issues with all of the above listed, which shouldn’t surprise anyone. At the same time, once I have all my ducks in a row and I have said I’m going to do something, you can take it to the bank that it will get done. In the end, I can achieve goals I set or other set for me because for me it’s a matter of integrity to do what I say. Deadlines loom large for me, and that helps me overcome at least that issue–when a clear deadline is actually set.


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.


Autism, Memory, and Executive Function

Weak working memory is part of the deficit in the “executive functioning” of the brain. The brain’s executive function manages, regulates, and controls many of the brain’s functions, including attention and planning. The working memory holds multiple pieces of information in the mind, to be manipulated. If you have a poor working memory, you will likely have a hard time proving you remember something when you are tested on it. In other words, it may seem that the person has difficulty learning, when in fact the person can learn a lot, but they simply have a hard time demonstrating that knowledge through standard forms of testing.

People on the autism spectrum actually do best when they have an opportunity to demonstrate that knowledge in context. In a conversation, for example, the person will talk about all of the things they know about that given topic. But if you had given that same person a test on the subject instead, they may not be able to recall all of the information in the same way. Especially if demands are being made on working memory, as is often the case with testing. People on the spectrum often have quite good associative memory, verbal working memory, and recognition memory. Recognition memory is what we typically just call “remembering”, also known as recollection memory, and “knowing,” or familiarity memory. Recollection is a slow process, and familiarity is a fast one. Associative learning is learning that takes place in a given context, and is often recalled in a similar context.

In addition to working memory, people on the autism spectrum have problems with temporal order (when things happen in time), source (inability to remember when, where, etc you learned something, while remembering what you learned), and free recall. The latter is, again, central to testing and is not at all indicative of whether or not a child is in fact learning anything. If you require someone to simply recall information in a random way, they can typically do so, unless they are on the spectrum. People on the spectrum typically have to have a stimulus or context in which to remember everything. Then they will spill the beans. And more. There is also a tendency to do better with visual memory and cues than verbal ones. While temporal working memory seems to be impaired, spatial working memory (images, maps, etc) often seems to work better.

Children on the autism spectrum also have to be explicitly taught strategies to recall information, strategies which neurotypical children have naturally. If you want a child to do well on a test, for example, you need to not only teach them information, but teach them how to retrieve the information. People on the spectrum have difficulty with organization and performance skills, but have exceptional abilities to follow rules, so long as the rules are explicitly laid out. You cannot imply the rules or suggest the rules or have unspoken rules—all rules must be explicit, detailed, and clear if you want someone on the spectrum to follow them. And when you do that, they will follow those rules. Also, people on the spectrum have extremely powerful implicit memory. Implicit memory is the ability to remember something or how to do something without conscious awareness of those previous experiences. What this means is that a student, for example, who is on the spectrum and doesn’t seem to be paying attention is in fact learning, gaining information implicitly, which can then be easily recalled later.

The main issue with autism spectrum disorder is the impaired executive functioning, which affects attention, inhibitory control, working memory, cognitive flexibility, reasoning, problem solving, and planning. As you can imagine, these are going to affect school. The autistic student will appear not to be paying attention, will have a hard time inhibiting behaviors and may therefore sometime act inappropriately, will be rigid in her thinking, have difficulty with some kinds of reasoning and problem solving, and have difficulty planning and prioritizing. The child can be taught some of these things and the executive functioning can be developed, but it has to be explicit in the way it’s taught. The more explicit you are about the rules and what you expect from the student, the more the student will learn and behaviors will improve.

Another important element to understand is that the person on the autism spectrum typically has to have things repeated and related to each other to a far greater degree than has to be done for other students. In many ways the autistic brain works in opposite ways from the neurotypical brain. Teaching and testing methods developed for neurotypical students often cannot work well for autistic students. They will show “deficits” where there are really only differences. Teachers need to learn how to teach autistic students, because in many ways everything they are doing is wrong, from the perspective of teaching the autistic brain.

The issue then is that the memory in people on the autism spectrum works and expresses itself differently than it does in other people. The way we test for knowledge and learning, it is not uncommon for us to “find” the student hasn’t learned much of anything or retained much of anything. However, if we test the student in the right way, we will find that they probably have retained far more than the regular student has.

Executive Function and Perceiving the World

The brain’s executive function creates a hierarchy within the brain itself, with the executive function at the top, in charge of setting goals and priorities, preventing one from giving in to whatever urges one would otherwise follow. One can think of it as the CEO of the brain. Those with weaker executive function are going to have brains with weak or even nonexistent CEOs. Yet, an organization like the body requires at least a weak EF/CEO for the world to make sense to the rest of the brain and for the body to show control from the brain. Unconscious desires get expressed, resulting in socially inappropriate actions or comments. However, conscious moral construction is able to replace EF, or to at least lend it support.

F. A. Hayek observed in The Sensory Order, and this idea is supported by Stuart Kauffman, that complex systems model the world according to their own internal structures. Hierarchically, ordered brains with a strong EF, would see hierarchy everywhere; spontaneously ordered brains with weak EFs would see spontaneous orders everywhere. Each “sees” the world through their own structures.

Network controls are through negative feedback — this is cybernetic control. The stronger positive feedback is, the more control is lost. If negative feedback is dominant, the person is very controlled, but not very creative; if they are codominant, the person is creative (just like with spontaneous orders); if positive feedback dominates, they are on the autism spectrum (including ADD/ADHD).

If positive feedback dominates, control breaks down and cycles dominate. More and more processes become decoupled from each other — which may explain why severe autistics are often non-verbal and have to rely exclusively on images. If words become dissociated from images, how can you speak? And of course, the more decoupled processes in the brain are from each other, the less sense the world makes, the less the brain can integrate.

Executive Functioning, Creativity, and Autism

New research has shown that creativity mostly takes place in the cerebellum, while the executive functioning of the frontal lobe actually restricts creativity.

One of the features of autism (and ADD/ADHD) is impaired executive functioning. Among the things executive functioning does, according to Web MD:

  • Manage time
  • Pay attention
  • Switch focus
  • Plan and organize
  • Remember details
  • Avoid saying or doing the wrong thing
  • Do things based on your experience

When your executive functioning is impaired, you have difficulty with the above abilities. I recently wrote about the problems people with autism have with the last one on the list. The inability to make use of prior knowledge, then, is an executive functioning problem. While this seems to contradict my claims in the previous post, the place where concepts are formed — the hippocampus — is also a place where executive functioning takes place. And there are impairments with the hippocampus in those with autism — in particular, there are issues with oxytocin, about which I have written before. And as we have seen before, GABA is also involved. Those “unwanted” thoughts are the source of creativity.

All of this points to a brain that is structurally and biochemically different from more typical brains. And the connection between executive functioning and creativity also explains why autistic people tend to be very creative.