Executive Function Disorder (EFD, or sometimes called Executive Dysfunction) is that weird feeling where you’re stuck sitting on the couch or scrolling through your Facebook or blind-gazing at a show. You know you want to get up and do something else. In fact, you know you need to get up and do something else, often something specific – shower, eat, start your homework – but you just can’t. I don’t mean like, “I don’t feel like it” or “I don’t want to.” I mean, you really do want to, you are really hungry, but the Meat Robot you drive everyday isn’t responding, no matter how many buttons you mash on the control board.
Yes, executive function disorder absolutely a real thing. It is heavily correlated to people with ADHD, autism, depression, and various other neurodiverse conditions, and it is a neurochemical imbalance . The good news is that it means that not being able to Do The Thing is not some kind of moral failing on your part. The bad news is, good luck dealing with it. (I’ll talk about some proposed medications further down.)
It’s terrifying sometimes to feel that powerless. It takes sometimes a sheer force of will to overcome it, a Herculean effort to do anything at all – and sometimes we just don’t have that strength.
As you already know, I play Dungeons and Dragons. (I’m a player as well as a Dungeon Master, but that’s another story.) One of the principles for any of the magic-using classes is the structure of Spell Slots. (Yes, this is similar to the Spoon Theory, but a little more specific to Auties rather than Chronic Fatigue/Pain sufferers.)
The way it works is this. When you’re a Level 1 Sorcerer, let’s say, there are only a handful of spells that you know. There are the super-easy ones (cantrips) and there are the ones that take a little more effort (level spells). You know four cantrips and two first level spells.
You can do cantrips all the live-long day and it doesn’t cost you anything. IRL, that would be something like breathing or going to the loo, or smoking if you’re into that sort of thing. Reading Facebook or Tumblr or Bored Panda, playing puzzle games on your phone, playing video games, and repetitive time-sink tasks all count as cantrips.
First level spells are things like Making a Sandwich, or Taking Out the Trash, or Starting Homework. First-level Sorcerers only know two first-level spells, and they can only perform two first-level spells a day. If they use up those spell slots, that’s it. They have to take a Long Rest to get them back. (There are exceptions, don’t get all rules-lawyer-y on me. These are general terms.)
As we grow in experience, we level up. We learn more spells, and we get more spell slots at higher and higher levels. A Level 2 Spell might be something like Taking a Shower Instead of a Bath (a major accomplishment and level-up for kids), or it might be Making a Quesadilla instead of a cold sandwich. A Level 5 Spell might be Performing a Complex Task at Work, or maybe Writing an APA-Style Paper for School. You’re already a 9th-Level Sorcerer to even be able to learn 5th-Level spells, and that means that you have four 1st level , three 2nd level, three 3rd level, three 4th level, and one 5th level spell slots.
That’s so many spells! That’s, like, fourteen spells a day!
Except, some spells require more energy than others. That’s why you can only do one 5th level spell a day – it takes a lot out of you, and then you have to Rest.
For the neurodiverse, it’s just like that with everything, ever single day. Things that energize us or help us focus, like the right kind of caffeine or medication, or having a really supportive environment, can actually grant us a few extra spell slots, but that doesn’t mean we have an endless supply. It’s just a few extra.
Most of the time, we’re operating at normal levels. That limitation is still there, and sometimes we end up using some of our lower spell slots on things like Getting Things Done at Work/School or Dealing with an Emotional Personal Situation, and when it comes to doing really low-level things like Performing Self-Maintenance, our low-level slots are expended and we have to muster the energy to use a high-level slot or else just fail to accomplish it. Even things we like to do use up spell slots.
And that’s what Executive Function Disorder is. You’ve used up your spells, there are things that need to be done, but you don’t have the energy or ingredients to get it done.
Different Types of Long Rests
Obviously, we don’t have the option to just take an eight-hour nap every time we run out. There are days when we only had a short rest or interrupted sleep, so not all of our slots got replenished. There are days when we’re on top of the world and can fire off spells like no one’s business (think of it like using a Scroll, a one-use thing that disappears when it’s activated). We have to be conscious of what our capabilities are and what our replenishment needs are.
Now, the biggest thing for most people who are in the throes of a time-sink or a severe EFD episode is to try to break out of it. Often, they focus on the thing that they know they need to do – go make a sammich, start homework, turn off the game and go to sleep – but that’s trying to use a spell we don’t have.
Instead, use another cantrip to break out of it. Don’t make a sammich, go get a drink instead; it takes less “processing” and energy. Instead of turning off the phone to go to sleep, go to the bathroom. The goal is to break out of the loop but not with a 1st level spell. When the loop is broken, you should be able to redirect back to the original thing that you needed to do. (Fair warning, though, it might take a couple of times and a few different cantrips to complete your redirection.)
Lots of things can support us in management of our spells. A solid diet low in processed foods and high in protein, healthy fats, and nutrients will always win you some extras. Junk food, especially with food dyes and American flour, will sap your slots. Getting the right amount of rest will help you replenish, but too much or too little will have the opposite effect.
Most importantly, be aware that your resources are limited and plan your day accordingly. Our goal is not to become so good at managing our behaviors that people “can’t tell” we’re neurodiverse: it’s to manage ourselves so well that our neurodiversity is our superpower.
Wizards of the Coast, Dungeons and Dragons, Official Website.
Miserandino, C. (2003). “The Spoon Theory.” But You Don’t Look Sick. Retrieved from ButYouDontLookSick.Com.
Papazian, O., Alfonso, I., Luzondo, R.J. (2006, April 1). “Executive function disorders.” Revista de Neurologia, Vol. 42, Issue 3, pp. 45-50. Retrieved from EuropePMC.Org (Abstract).
Samsel, A., Seneff, S. (2015, March 24). “Glyphosate, pathways to modern diseases III: Manganese, neurological diseases, and associated pathologies.” Surgical Neurology International, Vol. 6, Issue 45, pp. 2152-7806. Retrieved from NCBI (full article).
Thompson, Jason B. (2013). The Map of Zombies, medical-illustration style poster of all zombie properties up to 2013. Get your own over on his Kickstarter (it’s funded, you can just order it there).