Executive Function and Disorders

Einstein's desk in 1955, shortly after his death.

It was part of my Friday routine to go to the school's lost and found counter to ask for Big Boy's five missing water bottles. When my son was little, he used to lose everything you can imagine: his shirts, lunch boxes and his glasses. He was punished by his teachers once for going to school with unmatched shoes because he had lost one side of each pair. 

His unusual forgetfulness drove me to find answers from different sources, and I found out that his executive abilities were either underdeveloped or dysfunctional.

Some professionals told me about Executive Dysfunction, and felt sorry for me. You can read about this condition  here.

Some say what he has is related to ADHD or a other mental disorders.  It set me on panic mode and after going in circles trying to get this forgetfulness illness diagnosed, I realized it did not matter whether his executive abilities were developing later than others or that he had a disorder.  It was much more important to help him cope.

Fortunately, I know many 'forgetful professors' and meet them on a daily basis.  Just that in Asia, forgetful professors are not as common.  Forgetful and administratively poor people get squeezed out along their academic journeys to make way for the more conscientious and administratively sound ones who may or may not be as talented as them in other areas.

The reality is that organized and responsive people are often appreciated and well-liked.  Those who are weak in these areas are placed on the back-benches until they make some astounding discoveries to change other people's perceptions on them.

Read some of Einstein's incredible real life stories here.

Until they become the Einsteins, our mission as parents is the same whether our children are weak academically, socially or lack executive functioning skills.  Our responsibility is to help them overcome the obstacles and mitigate their weaknesses so that they succeed and become happy people.  We are here to be their advocates.

Teachers' Nemesis

When Big Boy was in primary two, his teacher called me into the school to show me a pile of worksheets and workbooks that he had not done throughout the year.  In fact, he did no work at all.

As he was among the top ten students in the school, I was not too concerned about his academic ability, so I asked the teacher to get him to do the work if she wanted.  Not surprisingly, she said the class size was too big and she couldn't do it.  Sadly, we left it there.

The situation got worse when he was in the secondary school.  With the increase in the number of subjects and projects, he simply could not function, and would lose all his worksheets and schedules.  Though he had good school teachers who would copy, recopy, and re-recopy everything for him, he would lose them all. It is not surprising that the teachers started to disbelieve his forgetfulness and deduced that he was disinterested and defiant.

Out of desperation, they would call me up and asked me to monitor him.  I tried my best, but it was difficult to read minds and predict what worksheets he had lost and what tests and examinations he had forgotten.

Involuntary Defiance

What the teachers did not know was that he was more desperate than them. Having spent eight years trying and not coping with these organization and administrative problems in school, and tired of explaining why he forgot, he decided that if he agreed with them he was not interested and bad, they would leave him alone.

It was then I realized what pain he had gone through, how hard he tried and tried and still failed, and how much he really wanted to do well but could not.  We found out no matter how hard he tried, he would still fall short.

Fortunately, he inherited the same problem from his mother. I spent most of my primary school years being punished outside my classroom for bringing the wrong books.  Nobody would believe me when I told them I had spent the whole evening trying to remember which books to bring and resorted to bring everything.  Somehow, I still managed to forget something every day. I recalled my own struggles and was determined to help him.

From experience, I know that the inability to remember administrative things is involuntary.  The skills to organize and administer, just like intellectual and social skills,  develop at different rates for different people.  I have lost count of the number of wallets, bus passes and umbrellas I had to replace  as a child and then as a teenager.

Though some people are born gifted with the ability to organize, others like us will have to learn to cope.  As an adult, I read articles, researched and trained myself to find coping strategies.  I created simple strategies: I always travel with only ONE big bag, don't carry things in my hand, don't put important things on other people's tables, answer every email at once and only once, keep an electronic calendar to the minute. In fact, I plan all the meals of the week in advance, and the routes I would travel before I turn my car engine on.

When suitable strategies are in place and worked into a routine, it is possible to function, succeed academically, pay bills, have multiple children and become a high flying executive.  It is even possible to excel  especially if we find complementing help in a secretary, a partner, a spouse or a parent. In fact, I became very efficient and can juggle many roles better than an average person.

Executive Dysfunction can 'Go Away'

For most children whose development in executive function fall behind their development in other intelligence, I found out that this imbalance normally corrects itself in the late teens.

Before that goes away, we as parents must work hard so that our children at least keep up with the work required of them.  We must chip in to help, teach time management and organization skills, and look out for tools to phase them into self-reliance.

The good news is, I learned that those of us who are poor in this area can become better than those who are naturally gifted simply because we will search and find new technologies and people to assist us in our planning and organization.

Einstein had his mother, and then his wife and a driver to help him.  Bill Gates had a wonderful mother and smart wife, too. I believe that the difference between a successful genius and a misunderstood one is that parent who would be his/her champion.

Big Boy's executive dysfunction did suddenly 'disappear' when he went to the university at fourteen: he could hand up his assignments, finish his projects and organize his own things.  Though he still gets messy and disorganized when stressed, he managed to complete his degree at eighteen without help from his parents.

I often wonder whether it was because he was so enthusiastic with his studies that he tried extra hard to ensure his weaknesses were mitigated, or it was because he had great classmates who looked out for him and kept him in check.

So if you have a child who is so gifted in other areas that his executive function falls behind and into judgmental eyes, would you crucify him for what he lacks, or would you patiently work and put things in place for him until he finds his next champion or develop his own planning methodologies and coping strategies?