This part 2 in a series about executive function. It looks at the remainder of the organizational functions that were introduced in part 1 : problem solving, verbal reasoning, working memory and attention.
Problem solving is another umbrella term, encompassing the activities related to identifying and overcoming obstacles to reach a predefined goal. Probably the most complex cognitive process that we engage in, it draws on nearly all of the other aspects of executive function.
Here is the traditional problem solving cycle, with related EF components in parentheses:
Identify the Problem (attention, initiation of action, monitoring of actions, working memory)
Define the Problem (cognitive flexibility, reasoning, working memory)
Form a Strategy (planning, reasoning, cognitive flexibility)
Organize Information (working memory, attention, reasoning)
Allocate Resources (planning, initiation of actions, inhibition, cognitive flexibility)
Monitor Progress (attention, working memory, monitoring of actions, inhibition)
Evaluate Results (working memory, reasoning, planning)
For me, that list is missing a very critical step: Recognize That a Problem Exists. Because this is where I often run into trouble with problem solving. I’m pretty good at reasoning out solutions to a defined problem. Not so good at actually recognizing the presence of a problem. And that’s executive function too.
And again there is an ironic twist lurking under the surface here: when someone else is having a problem, what is the default autistic response? Fix it! Come up with a plan! Whether they want us to or not.
We are instinctive problems solvers, but only when it comes to other people’s problems, it seems. Maybe because we wish other people would do this for us? Executive function is such a strange beast.
Verbal reasoning is the ability to understand, analyze and think critically about concepts presented in words. Think “reading comprehension” questions. Identifying synonyms and antonyms. Choosing the right pair of words from a list to complete a sentence. Pretty much everything you hated about the SAT or GRE is verbal reasoning.
At first glance it’s hard to see why verbal reasoning is a component of executive function. People who are widely read or have large vocabularies have an inherent advantage on verbal reasoning tests. In that sense it’s more of an academic skill than a cognitive processing ability.
However, if we look at verbal reasoning in real life situations rather than on tests, it becomes easier to see how this is an executive functioning ability. Analyzing, understanding and thinking critically require prioritizing, organizing, remembering and otherwise manipulating information in complex ways. Verbal reasoning also draws on the EF domains of working memory and attention. Thinking about it this way makes it obvious that poor verbal reason contributes to common autistic language processing difficulties, like struggling to parse spoken instructions.
There are also some subtle ways that other autistic traits can undermine verbal reasoning. Often verbal reasoning has a social element to it–to successfully analyze the other person’s words, we need to also understand the coded social messages that underpin those words. Verbal reasoning can also rely on the ability to think in gray areas or to make temporary but illogical assumptions, which can be counterintuitive for people on the spectrum. Think about all those true/false or reading comprehensions questions that make you want to shout “but what about _______?”
If you struggle with the practical aspects of verbal reasoning–the kind we use every day–it can help to pull the verbal part out of the equation. Write things down, diagram concepts, draw conceptual representations of the information, make timelines, visually organize by color or shape. Do an end run around this aspect of executive function by using your natural thinking style to perform the same functions in a more efficient way.
Working memory is basically short term memory–holding pieces of information in your head for a short amount of time as you complete a task. Remembering a phone number while you dial it. Remembering what you’re looking for in the junk drawer. Remembering which doors you’ve already been through on a video game level.
Autistic people tend to have notoriously bad working memories. A clue to why might lie in the link between working memory and selective attention. People who have difficulty filtering out environmental stimuli (selective attention) tend to have poor working memory. And who has more difficulty filtering out environmental stimuli than people on the spectrum?
The basic theory here is that environmental stimuli compete for brain resources with whatever we’re attempting to hold in our short term memory, weakening working memory capacity. Which makes perfect sense when you think about it. Doing any task is harder when there is an environmental distraction. However, most people’s brains naturally filter out environmental distractions via selective attention–the ability to direct our attention toward important information while letting unimportant information exist around the periphery of consciousness as white noise.
One of the few situations in which this type of filtering happens for me is when I’m writing or engaging in some other intense interest. The house could fall down around me and I’d hardly notice. But put me in a classroom or an office or a restaurant–any place I’m expected to focus on something outside myself–and I get a cacophony of environmental noise competing with that focal point. It’s almost as if I can 100% shut off the outside world by focusing internally or I have to let everything in to focus on an external source of information. Which just might be an explanation for why special interests are so relaxing and have such an intense pull.
The attention component of executive function is closely tied to working memory and is largely responsible for the “autistic people can’t multitask” trope. Basically, attention functions along two axes–top down control of attention by our executive function system (via the prefrontal cortex) and bottom up control of attention by sensory inputs.
Because autistic individuals have so much difficulty filtering sensory input–especially when it comes to filtering out sensory input–our bottom up control systems tend to dominate. That makes it harder for top down control of attention to take the reins. The problem is, top-down control is what most people think of as paying attention.
But attention itself isn’t that narrowly defined. Attention is simply where your conscious mind is focused. It might be focused on the conversation you’re having or it might be focused on the sound of the air conditioner vent above your head. The irony here is how enmeshed attention and working memory are. Poor working memory makes it harder to filter out sensory input, allowing the bottom-up system to dominate. When the bottom-up system dominates, working memory suffers, creating a vicious cycle.
This is why having a quiet, distraction-free environment seems to work miracles when it comes to productivity and focus. Purposely reducing sensory distractions quiets the bottom-up attention system, making it easier for the top-down system to actively direct attention to the task at hand.