The Asperger Writer and Executive Function Deficit


Look, Serbian cattle!

Look, Serbian cattle!

‘Writer’ is one of the careers mentioned for people with Asperger Syndrome in one of my books about the disorder. Yet why don’t I have more success in getting my writing projects finished? Executive function deficit, AKA executive dysfunction.

Executive dysfunction is a fancy way to describe some traits we Aspies have. We can be chronically disorganized, easily distracted, have difficulty making and carrying out plans to get a complex task done, we are constantly ‘a day late and a dollar short’ as my Dad used to say…. Much like people with AD/HD, we can have severe problems in getting tasks done. And the world is none too tolerant of this deficit— one reason that around 80% of Aspies are unemployed.

Workplace accomodation: Employers don’t expect their wheelchair-bound employees to run up and down a staircase during the course of their workday. They don’t expect their blind employees to sort objects by color or other visual cues. In the same way, employers should be prepared to accommodate Aspie employees by limiting the amount of tasks requiring high levels of executive function that the employee must perform (and giving him extra tasks of the sort he’s good at), and by breaking down complex assignments into smaller  parts. (It is of course legitimate for an employer to not hire an Aspie with poor executive function for jobs that are nothing but executive function tasks, just as they needn’t hire the blind man to work in the color-sorting department.)

I believe that we Aspies can become excellent writers in spite of our executive dysfunction. Because our brains work in a different way, our stories can have unique qualities. We can use our obsessive Special Interests to master topics related to our stories, making those stories richer. (Think of Herman Melville, the Aspie author of Moby Dick. His Special Interests in whaling and the sea made Moby Dick what it is today— a book well worth repeated reading, if you haven’t had it spoiled for you by being forced to read it in school.)

Each Aspie is different, and our executive function deficits are different. Here is my assignment: grab a writing instrument and something to write on (I recommend paper and pen over chisel and stone wall, but whatever works for you), and write down some issues in your writing life that may be affected by executive dysfunction. To help you get started (and to give my page trolls something criticize me about), here is my list:

  • My messy writing area. I have had a pile of papers on the left side of my desk for years, that I dare not disturb, because then I won’t be able to find stuff. I haven’t looked at the bottom of that pile in over a year, and there may be some paper in the pile that ought to be thrown out. There are books on my writing desk. Some are urgently needed reference books, like my thesaurus and my KJV Bible and my Strong’s Concordance and my Esperanto dictionary. Others were part of long-abandoned projects, and one or two should even be given to Goodwill rather than cluttering up my home.
  • Disorganized way of handling writing project related papers. A writing project generates papers— notes, print-outs of internet research, lists of characters or story events. For my most recent project, I have papers in three places, and some stuff still in my computer that needs printing out. I have in the past lost important notes about a writing project and never found them again.
  • Mental disorganization about the steps to writing a novel, novella or short story. Poetry is easy. I can hold all of a short poem in my head. In some cases I’ve done two or three revisions of a poem in my head before I ever wrote the poem down. But longer writing projects can’t be held in the head like that. My story writing is wildly disorganized and I often generate tons of character lists, scene lists, and actual scenes to the point that I’m paralyzed at the prospect of organizing it into anything resembling coherent fiction.
  • Everyday life disorganizations. Or, how can you sit down and work on your novel when the sheep have escaped? Being disorganized about your essential daily tasks means those tasks take longer than they need to, and this will cut into your writing time.

Once you’ve made your own list, how do you fix things? Don’t do it all at once. Just identify one little thing that you could do to improve your performance, and do it.

What if you don’t know what to do, or the things you’ve tried don’t work? You might try reading books aimed at adults with AD/HD, particularly ones on organizing. I’ve found some great suggestions that help, sometimes. (I let the new organizing systems get cluttered over time— I must schedule weekly cleanups and cleanouts to keep this from happening.)

Do you have an executive dysfunction, whether from Asperger Syndrome, AD/HD or some other cause? What problems does it cause in your writing life? What methods have you used to cope? Drop me a comment and tell your story (briefly, if possible).

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2 thoughts on “The Asperger Writer and Executive Function Deficit

  1. This is me.

    Well, it was until I moved — twice in two years — and each time had to pare down my belongings, which led to a sorting and paring down of all those disorganized stacks and boxes of paper. I was forced to become organized for the moving vans and the new living spaces.

    Unfortunately, I’ve never felt as creative since. It’s as if the enforced neatness infringes on my ability to think. For a while this year, I wondered if all the writing I’d done so far was the only good writing I would ever do; if all the creativity had drained away and now I had a brain only capable of mundanity. I didn’t know what to do, and this led to depression and many prayers.

    However, slowly, some of who I used to be is coming back. There’s no desk to accommodate piles of paper of all kinds — and I do mean ALL kinds, because even Kleenex can be used to as notepaper 😉 — but I am learning to keep spiral notebooks handy, even when I leave the house for short errands (even notes on scrap paper are quickly recorded in the notebooks), so that there is no need for the stacks.

    Working from home as an associate editor for two years reinforced that the way I think, “organize”, create, and work doesn’t fit the current norm or expectations for the world at large. I’m hoping I can continue to work independently, because my mind has been more at ease since doing so.

  2. Yes, too much neatness can feel bad for your creativity. Right now I’m hoping to transfer my Big Paper Pile into a plastic sweater box with a lid, so at least the cats can’t knock the top papers off any more. And I have tons of stacking paper trays, which I’ve heard recommended for AD/HD people, so that you can put your important papers in a different pile than your newspaper clippings and that cool picture of Mr. Spock you found somewhere.

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