Tag Archives: executive function

Practically Perfect in Every Way

Perfectionist.

You’re such a perfectionist.

Are you cringing after reading that? I am.

Perfectionist is rarely used in a positive context. As a put down, it’s a polite stand-in for rigid, controlling, procrastinating, slow, nitpicky, paralyzed. Even when people try to use it in a positive context, it rarely casts a favorable light. “Your strengths? Well, you’re a perfectionist . . . that can be a good thing.”

The Roots of Perfectionism

Perfectionism is basically the flip side of catastrophizing, with a side of control freak. Let’s face it–not a positive character trait.

I say this as a lifelong and unreformed perfectionist.

And because I’ve been a perfectionist for as long as I can remember, I’ve given a lot of thought to the why’s and how’s of it. Perfectionism is believed to be rooted in childhood. We somehow get the idea in our heads that we’re valued for our achievements. As we grow older, we base our self-worth on the approval of others, convinced that if we can do things perfectly, we’ll be loved and accepted. If we fail, on the other hand, we must be worthless.

This is the classic explanation of perfectionism.

For me, the problem with this explanation is that I never quite felt like it fit. It’s in the right ballpark. I do seek approval from others, though just as often, I couldn’t care less. I put a big emphasis in my life on my accomplishments. Doing well is important to me and I often believe there is a standard of perfection that I should live up to, or at least aim for.

What I don’t see in myself is the worthlessness. I’m hard on myself when I fail, but I bounce back quickly. My fear of failure is low. I’m willing to put myself out there and see what happens, even when I know that the risk of failure is high. It’s rare that I feel worthless, even when I screw up in a big way.

Multidimensional Perfectionism

As I researched perfectionism, I came across more nuanced models. For example, some psychologists believe that there is adaptive perfectionism, which motivates us to strive for success without the negative impact on self-esteem that the classic maladaptive perfectionism carries.

Others classify multiple types of perfectionism based on the object of the perfectionist thinking:

  • self-oriented perfectionism: setting irrationally high standards for one’s own behavior, appearance, achievements, etc.

  • other-oriented perfectionism: setting irrationally high standards for others to conform to

  • socially prescribed perfectionism: believing that others (particularly significant others) have irrationally high standards for one’s self to conform to

When perfectionism is broken down this way, I see myself in all three categories. The Multidimensional Personality Scale (MPS) backs up my instincts. The average scores are 1s and 2s. My averages are 4s and 5s. In working through the questions on the MPS, I began to formulate a new theory about why so many autistic people are perfectionists.

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The Link Between Autism and Perfectionism

I think autistic perfectionism has some additional dimensions to it, beyond the classic model of “if I’m perfect, people will love me.”

First, our tendency toward black and white thinking can create an appearance of perfectionism. If I sit down to write an essay for English class with the idea that I will either produce the perfect essay or I will produce garbage, that looks a lot like perfectionism. But what if I think about my essay that way because I’m not good at thinking in shades of gray? What if it doesn’t occur to me that between perfect and garbage, there exists pretty bad, below average, acceptable, pretty good, very good, excellent and nearly perfect?

It might seem like splitting hairs to differentiate between straight-up black and white thinking and perfectionism, but I think doing so can illuminate an important difference. If I’m trying to write the perfect essay because I truly think the only other option is a terrible essay, what I need to work on is remembering that there are other possibilities. If I’m trying to write the perfect essay because I think that doing anything less makes me a failure as a person, I need to work on my self-esteem.

Personally, I think my perfectionism a mix of the two, weighted more toward black and white thinking, which may be why I don’t have the feelings of worthlessness that commonly go along with perfectionism. If anything, I have the opposite problem. Often I’ll finish something and think it is perfect, until someone tells me otherwise. I’m so certain that I haven’t made a total disaster of it that the only other option is I’ve done a stunningly good job. Bizarrely, my perfectionism cuts both ways, again because I haven’t accounted for things like “really well done” or “good enough” or “close but not quite” in my potential outcomes.

The other factor that feeds perfectionism in autistic people, I think, is rooted in our childhood experiences with failure. As I read through the questions on the MPS, I realized that my strong agreement with statements like “I usually have doubts about the simple everyday things I do” and “People will probably think less of me if I make a mistake” is rooted in decades of living with undiagnosed ASD. Decades of knowing that something was off. Of feeling like I had to work a lot harder than other people to keep up a semblance of normalcy. Of trying to hide all the little ways in which I not only wasn’t perfect, but I wasn’t even “normal.”

Passing, after all, is a kind of perfectionism in itself. It may even be possible to make an argument that our subconscious need for approval is an upshot of the pressure to pass that we feel from childhood.

Autistic perfectionism is like the deluxe bonus edition of perfectionism: subconscious need for approval plus black and white thinking plus social/internal pressure to pass. And like a lot of deluxe bonus editions, this one isn’t really worth paying extra for.

Asking for Help

I’ve never been good at asking for help. A few memorable examples to help you understand how nonexistent my “asking for help” skills were as a kid:

When I was five, I fell out of a tree that I was climbing and landed on my back. As you can imagine, I completely knocked the wind out of myself. Not being able to breathe was scary. Falling out of the tree hurt. Did I run to my parents in tears, wanting to be comforted? Nope. I can still remember squatting on the garage floor, crying, trying to catch my breath.

In third grade, during small group reading time, I only brought one tissue with me to the group reading table. I had a nasty cold and quickly used up that tissue plus both shirt cuffs. So I sat there, right next to the teacher, pretending that I didn’t have snot running down my face and that I wasn’t licking it as it reached my mouth. Eventually I guess she couldn’t take it anymore. She went and got some tissues, setting the box in front of me with the admonition that I should ask next time.

In sixth grade, a boy trapped me in the coat closet and kissed me. Not a cute puppy love kind of kiss. More like a gross, smelly, pinned in the corner so hard I couldn’t breathe kind of thing. I spent the rest of the spring avoiding him. He was bigger and stronger and I was afraid of him. I never told an adult. I never asked for help in keeping myself safe from him.

All three of those memories are traumatic in their own way. I remember feeling scared and alone. I don’t remember even thinking about asking for help. For some reason, among all of the options I came up with, none of them involved going to another person to see if they could assist me in solving my problem.

help Continue reading Asking for Help

Pros and Cons of Being Self-employed When You’re on the Spectrum

This is part 3 in a 4-part series on self-employment for people on the autism spectrum

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In business school, one of the first management skills you learn is how to do a SWOT analysis. SWOT stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. The idea is that by identifying internal (S and W) and external (O and T) positives and negatives, you can then set realistic objectives for a project or business.

Management 101 - the SWOT analysis (Creative Commons license, created by Xhienne |Permission= {{cc-by-sa-2.5}})
Management 101 – the SWOT analysis (Creative Commons license, created by Xhienne |Permission= {{cc-by-sa-2.5}})

Predictably, I have an issue with the way a SWOT analysis frames the “harmful” aspects of the model. I’ve found that weaknesses (and sometimes threats) can be just as helpful in achieving an objective as strengths. If you see a weakness as an opportunity to adapt, compensate or innovate your way around a problem, then that weakness is going to be helpful in the long run.

For example, because of my weaknesses in executive function, I’ve created all sorts of organizational systems and fail safes that make me far more organized at work than the average person. Not because I love being organized but because if I wasn’t super organized I would spend my days going in circles, accomplishing little. Out of necessity, I’ve taken a weakness and turned it into a super-competency.

So ignore the word “Harmful” at the top of the righthand column in the SWOT graphic. Weaknesses are challenges to be conquered, not obstacles to shrink from in fear.  Continue reading Pros and Cons of Being Self-employed When You’re on the Spectrum

Monday Morning Musings (8/12)

Doing What I Want Experiment: Week 2

Realizations from week 2:

24/7 self-improvement doesn’t work, or at least it doesn’t work for me. I’ve given myself permission to fall back on old habits occasionally if I’m feeling too vulnerable or uncertain. More on this in a future post because it feels important.

Convenience should not be a major deciding factor for fun activities. Fun or rewarding activities are worth investing extra effort in.

Being open to spontaneity is part of good decision making. “But I always . . .” and “But I never . . .”  thoughts are not.

Being nice to myself is a valid reason for making a decision. I don’t need further justification.

For minor decisions, I don’t have to make the absolute best possible choice, I just have to make a choice I’ll be happy with. It doesn’t matter whether the Mai Tai will make me fractionally happier than the Margarita or I like the blue sweater slightly more than the red one. If I’ll be happy with either choice, I can choose on a whim and be done with it. I don’t have to try to be more happy or as happy as is humanly possible as the result of a decision. Buying a sweater is not the same as buying a car.  Continue reading Monday Morning Musings (8/12)

The Challenges of Being a Self-Employed Aspie

This is part 2 in a 4-part series on self-employment for people on the autism spectrum

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Aspies are faced with some challenges that can make being self-employed very difficult. The two biggest potential roadblocks are issues with executive function and uneven social skills.

Executive function affects things like planning, initiation of actions, problem solving and attention switching. If you have poor executive function, the lack of accountability inherent in self-employment can be a recipe for disaster. I’ve developed a lot of systems to keep me on track and impose order on my work day–things like keeping lists, using a dayplanner, creating artificial deadlines, setting alarms, making notes to myself, and rewarding myself for meeting goals.

No matter what type of business you have (or what type of job you do), executive function is fundamental to staying on track on a day-to-day basis. If you can’t master the basics of managing a daily schedule and completing tasks on time, then being your own boss will probably make you more miserable than happy.

The other big challenge is social skills. While it’s possible to structure a business or freelance position so that you have very little contact with others, that isn’t always the case. Some common freelance/self-employed positions lend themselves to solitary work and others require a lot of contact with people.

For example, a website like Elance makes it possible for freelancers and small businesses to bid on and complete jobs entirely online. I’ve hired freelancers and gotten excellent work done without ever speaking with anyone over the phone or in person. If you’re skilled in a field that primarily requires creating deliverables (websites, graphics, text, analysis, code, etc.), you may be able to transact most of your business without a lot of face-to-face interaction (if you prefer).

On the other hand, turning your skill into a career may require you to interact with lot of people on a daily basis. If you’re an expert bicycle repair person, you’ll have to talk to people about their bikes to find out what work needs to be performed. But–oh–wait! I bet an someone with a special interest in bicycle repair would love nothing more than talking to people about repairing bicycles!

That’s another benefit to turning a special interest into a career. I find business-related interaction to be less stressful than general social interaction. If I’m talking to someone about a project then I’m in my element and can navigate the conversation fairly confidently. I’ve even been interviewed by writers for articles and books in my industry as an “expert” and actually enjoyed those opportunities. It was fun to talk about a subject I know well (even if the interviewers had to keep reminding me to slow down so they could understand me).  Continue reading The Challenges of Being a Self-Employed Aspie

The One Where I Talk to Myself About Shame

You’ve been putting off writing this for a while, haven’t you?

Yep.

Weeks?

More like months.

And how’s that working for you?

Well, I wrote posts about functioning and the verbal-nonverbal disconnect and executive function to avoid what I really wanted to write about.

Which is?

Shame. All the things I’m supposed to be able to do. The ways executive function undermines developmental expectations. What it means to be independent and what it means to be developmentally delayed and why those two things are not mutually exclusive.

Because I don’t live “independently.” I never have. I don’t know if I could or not. I probably could if I had to, though maybe not as successfully as I’d like to pretend.

You’re doing it again, veering into an easier topic to avoid that shame thing a little longer.

Right. Shame. Hang on.

shame

Hey, enough with the Googling! Get back here and write something.

Relax. I needed context. How about this:

Shame is rooted in our perceived defects. When those defects are revealed to others, we see ourselves in a negative light. Shame creeps in.  Continue reading The One Where I Talk to Myself About Shame

Procrastination or Executive Function Fail?

There’s a spot on my kitchen floor, a little cluster of dried reddish drips. I don’t know what it is. If it’s from 3 days ago, it’s tomato sauce. If it’s been there longer . . .  who knows.

I’ve walked past it dozens of times. I look at it. It annoys me. I wonder how it got there. I wish it would go away. It doesn’t occur to me that I can make that happen.

The greasy smudgey fingerprints on the cabinet that I can only see in exactly the right light? The 8-inch long thread that’s been hanging off the bathroom rug since the last vacuuming? The dryer sheet on the laundry room floor? Same thing.

What is this? Why can I sit here and catalog all of these little annoyances yet I still do nothing about them? It’s not like fixing them would take a huge amount of time or effort.

In fact, to demonstrate how minor they are, I’ll take care of them right now.

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Done. It took me less than five minutes to wipe down the kitchen cabinets, trim the thread and toss in the trash, pick up the dryer sheet, and clean the spot off the floor. I bet it would also take only a few minutes to vacuum up the bits of dirt and grass scattered in the entryway from my running shoes.

But I’m sitting writing and not doing it, aren’t I?

Maybe later.

And this is how days go by and I keep right on walking around the mess, getting more and more annoyed by its existence yet still not doing anything about it.  Continue reading Procrastination or Executive Function Fail?

What Do I Want?

The Scientist has proposed a 30-day experiment. He says I need to practice doing what I want to do. He says, in addition to being good for me, it will help him to get to know me better. We’ve known each other for 28 years, so this feels a little late in the game for getting to know each other better. And yet . . .

What really intrigued me about his proposal is how it might help me get to know myself better. If you’re a long time reader, you might remember that last year I wrote about how much difficulty I have figuring out what I want. I often haphazardly make minor decisions, only to find I’m unhappy with the results. Here’s an example, the one that sparked the idea for the experiment:

I tried out a new recipe for dinner last week–a light summer mix of fresh tomatoes, red onions, squash and fried okra from the farmer’s market. When The Scientist tasted it, he said the flavor was too strong for him but he’d make some pasta to toss the veggies with. Since I was already cooking, I made the pasta, and for some reason I mixed all of the veggies with the pasta instead of setting my half aside. The resulting pasta dish tasted okay, but it wasn’t what I had in mind when I chose the recipe.

After dinner I was feeling gloomy, silently perseverating. As we were sitting down to watch TV, I blurted out, “I have no idea why I ate that. It wasn’t what I wanted.”

The Scientist, surprised by how upset I was, asked why I ate it if I didn’t want it. My answer: “I don’t know.”

A longish discussion ensued. The next day. Because we’re slow to process things. One of the conclusions we came to is that I sometimes do things to please other people at the expense of own preferences. Strangely, this seems to be more of a reflex action than a conscious choice.

So the experiment is this: for 30 days, I’m supposed to do whatever I want. This is alarmingly vague.

What do I want? Decision making–even the simplest decisions–can tie me up in knots. My primary decision-making strategies:

1. What do you want? I’ve noticed that other people often have stronger preferences or are more aware of what they want or like than I am. If what they suggest isn’t objectionable to me, I’ll go along with their choice. Decision making by proxy. Simple. Efficient. And probably one of the main reasons I have so much trouble figuring out my own wants and preferences.

2. I don’t want A. By default I must want B. If someone says “do you want Chinese food or Pizza?” it rarely occurs to me that I actually want a burger.

3. This is too hard. I give up. When there are too many options, I don’t know where to start. I choose the first option that isn’t terrible. These are often the choices I end up feeling most ambivalent about.

4. I want A but it’s too much work. I’ll just settle for B. This is how I made decisions when I’m overloaded. I would love ice cream right now but going out to get it sounds exhausting so I’ll have this peach instead.

5. I want this thing and nothing else. This sounds great. It’s not. What I want is often imaginary. In my head it’s this perfect thing. In reality, it turns out to be a pale shadow of what I anticipated.

6. I want A, but I can tell you want B. If one of us has to be disappointed, I’d rather it be me. This makes me sound like such a martyr. Honestly,  it’s an annoying reflex response that I need to cure myself of. Done too often, it breeds resentment.

Writing this out helps me understand better why I often feel ambivalent or unsatisfied with minor decisions. I need new strategies. The Scientist says to try just feeling it. This is hard. I’m used to making decisions based on logic and reasoning.

But . . . 30 days of being with this question of “what do I want?” might change that. We’ll see.

Interoception: How Do I Feel?

Let’s talk about interoception. I bet you’re already on the edge of your seat, right?

Okay, okay, first a definition. Interoception describes our sensitivity to sensations that originate in our bodies. Think pain, temperature, itch, sensual touch, sensations from our organs and muscles, hunger, thirst, and breathlessness.

All of these sensations combine to give us a sense of sentience. I’m hungry therefore I am.

interoception

Our Body’s Dashboard

Interoceptive feedback is important for keeping our bodies in good working condition. Think of them as the body’s dashboard. Are we low on fuel? Running too hot? Has it been too long since some critical service was performed or is a warning light flashing? Interoceptive sensations provide the feedback necessary for troubleshooting and correcting imbalances in the body.

Emotions often arise from our interoceptive sensations, too. When someone asks how you feel, you probably subconsciously check-in with your body, and realizing that you’re tired, hungry, hot, or achy, you reply, “not too great.” Or conversely, if your interoceptive sensations are in balance, you might report feeling happy or at least content.

Obviously not all emotions are tied to interoception, but it’s hard to be happy when you’re in pain or content when you’re itchy. For many people being hungry or tired is a direct route to being cranky and short-tempered. Those of us who are alexithymic experience this even more strongly, often struggling to identify the difference between emotions and physical sensations. I can’t explain how my body confuses “upset” with “cold,” but sometimes it does. Now I know that if I’m feeling cold when no one else around me is, I need to check in with my emotions. And put on a hoodie.

Engage Interoceptive Dampeners

But what if your interoceptive system is dampened? What if a sensation needs to be in the red zone before it comes up on the dashboard? Well, then you forget to eat or stare in wonder at your bleeding toes or don’t realize you might be in pain until you pass out. Sound familiar?

Many autistic people have dampened or muted interoception. We just don’t seem to notice what’s going on in our bodies until it reaches a level that other people would find intolerable. And often when we do notice it, it goes from “oh that’s happening” to intolerable really darn fast.

As often as I experience this in minor, inconvenient ways, I’m occasionally reminded of how dangerous it can be. Because hindsight is 20/20, I can see in retrospect that I recently had a UTI coming on for days before I picked up on the symptoms. One of the main symptoms is pain and other than a vague crampy feeling, I wasn’t experiencing any. Easy to ignore, so I did.

Then some harder to ignore symptoms started happening and my daughter, who I was visiting at the time, said, “you need to go get this checked now.” Left to my own devices, I probably would have taken a wait-and-see approach which would have been bad. Because a few hours later, shortly after getting my prescriptions filled, I was in intense pain. An hour early, at the walk-in clinic, the doctor asked me if I had any pain and, after thinking about it for a moment, I said, “maybe a little?”

My body had gone from zero to “MAKE IT STOP” in less than hour.

And thanks to my body’s poor interoceptive workings, I was rewarded with a kidney infection because unlike most women who dash off to the doctor at those first signs of a UTI, I wasn’t getting enough data to trigger my internal alarms. It wasn’t until I started having more obvious symptoms that I realized something might be wrong and took to Google to figure out what it could be. By the time I started getting the right antibiotics in my body, a common minor ailment has progressed to a potentially serious illness that I’m just starting to recover from two weeks later.

Unreliable Indicators

One of the purposes of interoception is to drive behavior.

Hungry? Eat.

Tired? Sleep.

Pain? Seek help.

Interoceptive sensations–especially pain–may be unreliable indicators in autistic individuals. Medical professionals often rely on pain and other self-reported symptoms of discomfort to assess the presence or seriousness of an illness. In my case, my interoceptive sensations were saying “meh” but my fever (which I didn’t realize I had) and high bacterial count were saying, “hey, big problem here!”

When you combine muted interoception with poor executive function–which may be further impaired by the stress of illness–you’ve got a recipe for disaster. This is why I need someone else to say, “we’re going to the doctor now.” It’s also why recognizing that autistic people may have unique pain, distress or illness signals is important for medical professionals, caregivers and loved ones. This can potentially lead to misdiagnosis or underdiagnosis.

Our nonstandard brain wiring can mean that we miss common warning signs or have difficulty knowing when to act on distress signals.

Decoding the High Functioning Label

Aspies are often labeled high functioning by default. Some people even seem to think it’s a compliment.

“You must be very high functioning. You don’t seem autistic.”

“Why, thank you. And you’re not especially ugly.”

Because, yeah . . . being told you’re “not that autistic” like it’s a good thing is hard to swallow.

Functioning Labels in Practice

Applying functioning labels to autistic people is problematic. Maybe an example will help illustrate why.

I’ll describe two autistic women, Mary and Joan. See if you can tell which one is high functioning and which one is low functioning:

Mary is a wife and mother. She’s been steadily employed since age 16, has a BA degree and runs her own small business. She exercises regularly and is health conscious. When her daughter was younger, she volunteered for parent committees, hosted sleepovers, coached softball and drove carpool. As the more detail-oriented spouse, Mary has always managed the family finances and investments. She has a diverse set of hobbies and pastimes that include dog training, target shooting, reading mystery novels and fiction writing.

Joan is a wife and mother too. Her marriage has been rocky at times, thanks to her undiagnosed ASD, and she has no close friends. Joan works at home, avoids speaking to people on the phone and prefers to spend most of her days alone. Joan sometimes needs to be reminded to brush her hair, shower or put on appropriate clothing before going out. She’s never negotiated a lease or car purchase by herself and has never lived on her own. She enjoys going to the zoo, vacations at Disney World, animated movies and has several stuffed animals that she likes to hug after a hard day.

It’s obvious that Mary is high functioning and Joan is low functioning, right?  Continue reading Decoding the High Functioning Label