Wrapping Up Learning Disability Awareness Month With Executive Dysfunction Awareness

4 years ago

We're coming to the end of October, which I know means that most folks with kids are thinking about Halloween. But did you know that October is National Learning Disability Awareness Month?

I feel like people hear "learning disability" and they immediately think "dyslexia." Maybe -- if they have a learning disabled child, or know one -- they'll go a step further and think of other "dys"es, such as dysgraphia or dyscalculia. On the most simplified level, dyslexia involves trouble reading, dysgraphia involves trouble writing, and dyscalculia involves difficulty with math. All three of these learning disabilities tend to lead to struggles in school, and all three are, I would say, relatively well-known manifestations of learning differences.

But start talking to someone about executive dysfunction and you just may get a blank stare. As explained by the NCLD:

Executive function is a set of mental processes that helps connect past experience with present action. People use it to perform activities such as planning, organizing, strategizing, paying attention to and remembering details, and managing time and space.

If you have trouble with executive function, these things are more difficult to do. You may also show a weakness with working memory, which is like “seeing in your mind’s eye.” This is an important tool in guiding your actions.

Executive dysfunction is not:
... your child being lazy.
... your child being forgetful "like all kids."
... deliberate defiance or refusal to adhere to the rules.

Executive dysfunction is:
... a learning disability.

My son is autistic (we used to say Asperger's, but thanks to the latest DSM revisions now we try to remember to just say autistic), and as he's moved into teenagerhood, many of his previous challenges have abated. He has much better control of his emotions and his actions than he used to, and he's worked really hard to learn to cope with the challenges inherent in having a brain that's not wired for the way most people experience the world. Every aspect of his functioning has improved with age, except for his ability to organize himself. That has gotten worse. Fortunately, exasperating though this may be, we already know that some level of executive dysfunction tends to tag along with autism, so we kind of knew what was up. Also on our side is the fact that he thrives on routine, and once we're able to establish a good habit, it usually works.

But executive dysfunction in my son means that he does his school work but fails to turn it in. Or he doesn't do his school work -- even though he looked over the schedule multiple times, and somehow is convinced that he finished everything -- and then is shocked to learn that he's missing work. It means his room is a disaster area, but when he cleans and organizes it he smiles and says, "I love it when everything is tidy and know where everything is!" And he does. And it might stay that way for a day or two. But then it's back to, "Did a tornado blow through here?"

Executive dysfunction (just like other learning disabilities) has nothing to do with intelligence. You can be smart and challenged at the same time. While we have had the occasional "he's too smart to do that" comments on my son, thanks (?) to his visible autism, his executive functioning issues are usually accepted by others as part of his overall set of quirks.

Credit: rbh.

My daughter, on the other hand, did a lot of flying under the radar for most of her life, and it wasn't until she reached high school that it became clear that she might have some sort of learning difference, as well. On the one hand, compared to my son, she "passes" a lot more easily; she's good at blending in with the group, crafting her behavior to match her peers', etc. On the other hand, the level of executive dysfunction with which she struggles makes my son look like a paragon of organization, in comparison. She agrees to set her watch alarm to keep her on task, but loses her watch. She has been known to forget to go to class. Getting dressed in the morning may require dumping out the entire contents of her dresser because she can't remember where anything is or even what she owns. We're on maybe our sixth "system" to help her keep track of homework, and while she has no problems completing the work, half the time she forgets there's an assignment and the other half of the time she loses it before she can hand it in. And because she often appears "perfectly normal," she is often accused of being lazy or defiant. She may well be lazy or defiant on occasion (aren't all teens?), but most of the time... she's learning disabled. She has significant deficits in both working memory and processing speed for which she has been able to compensate for years because she's pretty bright.

Executive dysfunction is, in my humble opinion, the proverbial red-headed stepchild of the learning disability world. It is perhaps one of the hardest differences to address in a consistent, workable way, while also being the learning disability people are most likely to roll their eyes and consider to be something made up. It's real, it's stressful -- both for the person who has it, and everyone around them -- and it can be managed. Most strategies for dealing with executive dysfunction revolve around tight organization, checklists, visual/auditory cues, and a lot of planning. If you want to learn more, the National Center for Learning Disabilities offers a free downloadable e-book on their site that's a nice little resource. Use it to educate yourself, or if you're dealing with a teacher or other adult working with your organizationally-challenged child, use it to educate them.

(Just don't give it to your afflicted child, because chances are excellent that they'll put it down somewhere, never to be seen again.)


BlogHer Contributing Editor Mir Kamin loves the stuffing out of her organizationally-challenged kids, even when informing them that they'd lose their heads if they weren't attached. She blogs near-daily about issues parental and otherwise at Woulda Coulda Shoulda, and all day long about the joys of mindful retail therapy at Want Not.

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