Updated: Sep 5, 2022
Have you been diagnosed with ADHD but are unsure how to explain it to others? Maybe you've been asked about the research behind executive dysfunction, but you're not sure what it means. We've compiled a list of explanations and examples that will help you.
What are the executive functions?
Executive functioning is a phrase used to describe a person’s ability to regulate complex behaviours. If this definition sounds vague, that's because it can be! Executive functioning is an extremely broad concept that contains several facets and spans multiple psychological fields .
In ADHD research, executive functioning typically refers to capacity within the following cognitive skills: set shifting, inhibition, and updating.
Set shifting is the ability to adapt quickly to changing conditions.
Inhibition is the ability to resist an urge or reflex.
Updating is the ability to hold, retrieve, and revise information within the working memory.
While there is evidence of a negative correlation between ADHD and executive functioning, this association is far from consistent . In fact, some people with ADHD experience few noticeable executive function problems at all .
In the paragraphs below, each main executive function will be outlined with an example you can hopefully use when explaining it to others.
Understanding set-shifting and transition time
You have just finished doing the budgeting for the week. Short of time, you now need to write a report for work. You find yourself struggling to switch from one type of task (in this case, a mathematic one) to another (in this case, a literary one).
This common problem is an example of difficulty with set-shifting. As I mentioned, set shifting involves rapidly changing behaviour to match new circumstances. In this example, the rules or parameters applied to the task you were just doing will not apply to the new task, and the mind takes time to adapt to this change . This delay creates a sense of mental lag, which is especially frustrating in time-sensitive situations. It can also result in persistence errors, which are mistakes that occur when the test-taker continues to apply an old set of rules to a novel problem (i.e. fails to set shift).
Although it can be more pronounced for people with ADHD, everyone can experience struggles with set-shifting. So below, I have outlined two examples of how you might explain this issue to a neurotypical person in a way that allows them to refer to their own experience.
Two examples of how to explain set-shifting to someone without ADHD
“Ever played a video game so long that you catch yourself expecting the rules of the game to apply to real life? For instance, mentally interlocking the outlines of objects you see in the world around you, such as windows, paintings, and rubbish bins, having just played Tetris or Candy crush for hours on end? Once the mind has adapted to a certain type of task (a pattern recognition game, in this case), it tends to remain in that adapted state even when the task is no longer relevant. Similarly, with ADHD we can find our mind ‘sticking’ to whatever we were just doing, and our performance suffers when we do not have adequate time to adjust to a new task.” Or
“Do you find that by focusing on one demanding task for some time, you can generate mental momentum and complete quality work, but taking the time to focus on something different but equally demanding (attend a meeting, for instance) effectively quashes this momentum? With ADHD, it takes us longer than usual to get in the headspace for a task, and we can work better when we can dedicate time to each problem rather than interspersing our focus on various problems.”
Understanding inhibition and the need for dopamine
You are using your laptop at a cafe, working on a task that requires concentration. In your peripheral vision, someone else’s screen is visible, and they are watching your favourite tv show. You try to suppress the urge to respond but find yourself looking over at the show.
This is an example of difficulty with inhibition. The other person’s screen represents a welcome distraction from your mentally exhausting work, and you may notice yourself looking at their screen almost reflexively. Inhibiting unwanted behaviours or thoughts is cognitively demanding , and maintaining self-control is something everyone struggles with at some point. We consciously understand that focusing is in our best interest, but we can find ourselves at war with our distractable and impulsive minds. As a side note, check out this article if you feel like you are often struggling to focus.
As discussed above, the activity of suppressing a response is mentally exhausting, and giving in on occasion is a universal human experience. Here is an example of how you might explain ADHD struggles with inhibition by referring to an experience common with neurotypical people.
Explaining inhibition difficulties to someone without ADHD
“After a long day of mentally demanding work, perhaps you find you are both more drawn and less resistant to spending money on something you previously decided was not good for you. With ADHD, I can spend more time feeling drained and unmotivated, so unless I have a dopamine plan in place, I can have more difficulty resisting the urge to spend.”
Understanding updating and working memory
It's time to get to work on a project. You have a detailed outline showing which project components must be completed before the end of the day. However, when evening comes, you realise you've only finished a few sections.
This common problem is an example of difficulty with updating. Updating can be described as keeping the working memory informed of changes in circumstances. As with the other executive functions, updating is a skill everyone can struggle with to some extent. This is because updating is a burden on working memory, and this memory is finite .
Explaining updating to someone without ADHD
“If you’ve ever worked in the hospitality industry, you will understand that the job of server or barista is extremely demanding on their memory. These people can be required to keep a mental list of the current orders and the sequence these orders were made in. This mental list must also be adjusted after each new order. People with ADHD can find it difficult to maintain a mental list of any kind, which reduces our ability to remember tasks. Instead, we often rely on external tools such as note-making, to-do lists, and alarms to substitute memory.”
Hopefully, this article has helped you to better understand the concept of executive dysfunction and given you some examples you can use at your next work meeting or family function. Remember that even though it can be difficult to experience these struggles, you are not the only one, and there are several strategies you can use for support. If you would like to try some of these strategies, click here to start working on our ADHD online course modules which have been developed to support executive functioning in areas such as your morning routine or time management.
Meriel Burnett is director of research at Unconventional Organisation. She has a background in Psychology and is currently studying for a Master in Clinical and Health Psychology.
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