The Autistic Writer: Executive Dysfunction
Executive dysfunction is common among Autistics. It is often defined as follows: “a behavioral symptom that disrupts a person’s ability to manage their own thoughts, emotions and actions.”
That sounds quite involved, but really it is a collection of symptoms and difficulties that impede one’s ability to make and follow through on plans and thoughts to various degrees. This effects the writing process in various ways.
Using a list of common signs of executive dysfunction from the same link as above, let’s explore how the condition could effect writing.
Being highly distractable.
Self-explanatory. Words don’t write themselves, no matter how easy it sometimes feels to compose something.
–Focusing too much on one thing to the detriment or other things.
Not generally an issue with my writing per se, but like any endeavor, obsession in the end leads to decreased, not increased quality and productivity.
Difficulty planning or undertaking tasks if the end cannot be easily visualized.
A big one for me, and it strongly relates to last week’s post on “black holes.” Not mere a matter or the end of a story being unknown, but the real-world results of creating a volume in the first place.
I suspect this is also why I rarely get it together to write for and submit to magazines and other periodicals. Each has it’s own format and expectations, and it feels overwhelming to even begin.
Difficulty motivating yourself to start a task that seems difficult or uninteresting.
Now if I cannot find a project interesting, I shouldn’t be attempting it in the first place, if I expect readers to enjoy it. But aspects of the publishing process apply here as well. Gathering a books meta data, cover creation, and the ever nauseating marketing plans. I have to push the rock up that hill just to get started on those vital but less flashy elements of book creation.
Impulse control issues.
This could be much worse for me, but it plays a role. A movie or a game may call to me several times instead of taking on the writing session I had planned. An excellent cure for this for me is to do most of my work at the local library; if I go through the effort to get there, I am certain to get the intended work done.
Struggling to move from one task to another.
More so an issue for me when inertia from other activities has set in. If for example I have been hiking earlier in the day, I am less likely to put in the work to write, simply because it’s a total shift in brain activity.
Trouble explaining your thought process clearly because putting it into words for others feels overwhelming.
Again, rather obvious. In may not usual be a though process, but I need to keep it slow and steady when I am writing particular work, or be ready to liberally revise. What words I string together in my head often seem clumsy on paper. Less of an issue for me in non-fiction than fiction, though I couldn’t tell you why.
It’s no secret that I have eventually overcome these various executive dysfunction issues in pursuit of my writing. My catalog proves it. But any given time, particularly with my current novel in progress, I have to trudge may way through the mud-of-inactivity to the point of exhaustion before I finally hit the stride to write regularly again.
And plenty of other things remain undone, that I wanted to do, because of various aspects of the Autistic executive dysfunction that never fully leaves my side as I write.
Never fully. I do however manage to chip away at it, like today.
The Autistic Writer: Results and Black Holes
Stories of Autistic children, (and adults for that matter) having to know why something is so, or the reasons behind a given instruction are legion. For many of us on the Spectrum, taking something for granted, or more accurately, just trusting in the wisdom of history, tradition or authority doesn’t come natural.
We want to understand the thought process behind what we are being asked (demanded?) to accept as inevitable. Not being taught why we are doing what we are doing, or the goal of being given an order can evoke a near-physical reaction in many on the Autism Spectrum.
And if you are a parent of any child, you know doubt have experience the crippling exhaustion of the cascade of “why, why, why?” After all “because I said so,” isn’t a phrase that invented itself, even if it’s not the most fair or healthy response for a parent.
Now, multiple this concept by, oh, 25. You’ll get some notion of the demands on Autistic brain has at any age to be privy to all of what goes into every decision that even tangentially touches them.
Blind obedience/faith isn’t our thing, to be more succinct.
Reasons. Goals. Demonstrable, qualitative outcomes, please. We heavily guard our energies and emotions. We need at least a well-intentioned map that displays what the journey is all about.
A strong neurological-preference-bordering-on-requirement as I have just described falls like a wayward bail of hay onto the shoulders of an Autistic writer such as myself.
Believe it or not, in their purest form, the writer is suppose to remain virtually unconcerned with the potential readership of their work. The perfect writing world is filled with wordsmiths that create and perfect their volumes based on metrics of their heart and truth, not on who will read it.
Further, in this authorial utopia, each craftsman of prose, every sculptor of poetry remains fueled ad infinitum by “love of process,” even when no evidence presents itself that anyone, anywhere is reading what we slave over.
Why? Because, my friends, we are writers.
At least that is so in Magicland. Truth is, even the least Autistic writer alive will want to know their words matter. But add on the deep-seated longing to observe the results of our work on the world around us, and you see how it is sometimes a small miracle that writers on the Spectrum continue to discover motivation for all of this when there is no obvious audience.
I have been at this for many years, folks. This blog, a previous blog, freelance pieces for local papers and magazines, and my numerous novels and books. Almost nobody reads any of it. Or, if I am charitable, I will say of those that read any of it, almost nobody ever reaches out to me about it, and that’s just as bad.
I have nothing but deep appreciation for the handful of people that project after project consume my material and tell people about it, at least on Goodreads. But be it here, my novels, TikTok, Twitter, or whatever comes next, the results equal to the labor have never been there. So crippling is the exhaustion of reaching so few people that over the years every passing project take more out of me, and requires longer periods of rest before I start another project.
This is a familiar story to all artists that have never achieved conventional success. But equally familiar is the solution; keep going anyway.
Which brings me back to where I started this post; the pounding question of an everlasting “Why?”
The true answer, dear readers, is yet unknown to this Autistic writer.
The Autistic Writer: (Not So) Hyperfixation
A majority of people on the Autism Spectrum experience what are called hyperfixations. These are concepts, activities, or other stimuli to which the person pays concentrated, prolonged and in depth attention, often at the expense of noticing anything else while “zoned.”
Some hyperfixations are present in an Autistic person for a lifetime, while others come and go over time.
A similar bit not identical concept is known in the Autism world as a “special interest.” In this case, the passion for the subject is equally intense, but to participation/consumption of it is perhaps less noticable, or more “moderate” as the rest of the world defines the term.
Almost anything can be/become an Autistic hyperfixation/special interest, writing included.
For me, however, this isn’t the case.
It’s true; I am an Autistic writer who doesn’t hyperfixate on the act of writing.
Ironic? Perhaps a little. And to have such a hyperfixation may have greatly increased my productivity over the years. (Though this is no guarantee.)
That being said, perhaps it is for the best that writing doesn’t draw the lion’s share of my life all of the time, everywhere.
What’s interesting about this observation is that even before I was diagnosed with ASD, I considered myself a writer. Yet I bristled at the notion that writing should be an all-consuming obsession. This actually runs counter to the advice I discovered, especially online early on about the life of a writer.
“If you can imagine doing anything else with your time, anything at all, go do it. You’re not a writer.”
I realize that this sentiment deals partially with the notion of making a living as a writer, as opposed to just writing at one’s own pace. Nevertheless, it is a limiting philosophy, and one I hope writers of all types refuse to take to heart.
If you ask me, a writer should have at least one proverbial foot in the real, outside world, even if the rest of him is within his own personal Muse-populated mental metropolis. Being lost in such a place sounds at first blush like a great escape. To a certain extent suppose it would be. But if we vanish too far into our own thoughts, obsessed with writing and creating sentences to the point that we experience little else, what are we writing about in the end? To whom are we writing? Why waste the ink, if we can just compose epics within our head?
If you think this post sounds leans more toward the writing end and less toward the Autistic angle, you are correct to a point. But I wanted to address what has become an unfortunate stereotype of the Autistic genius, cranking out masterpiece after masterpiece merely by taking a few minutes to file reports from within our imagination where we lie ensconced.
Not only is this trope, (popular in Hollywood) woefully inaccurate in terms of the writing process, it is offensively simplistic as pertains to the Autistic experience overall; we are people, not prophets. Not myth and not magic. And even if some of us do hyperfixate on our writing, those of us who have even the slightest desire to communicate legitimate thoughts to the world realize it cannot end there.
As this series oft hath shown, my Autism influences my writing. But it doesn’t write it for me, in a vacuum anymore than my hand, while the rest of me sleeps could produce this article.
If you are reading this, hopefully you already were well aware of this. Yet if everybody knew it, I wouldn’t have been motivated to write this week’s entry in the first place.
The Autistic Writer: Unconventional Perspectives
Though in this series I have explored certain challenges Autism presents to writing, I’ve never suggested that being on the Spectrum should preclude one from being a writer. (For obvious reasons.)
If nothing else, I hope this Autistic Writer series stands as a testament that there is nothing intrinsic to ASD that makes one de facto poor at writing.
Nor, would I say it being Autistic an automatic advantage to the writing life across the board.
There are however certain Autism characteristics that may at times give writers a leg up under particular circumstances.
I can think of no greater example than our unconventional perspectives on both individual people, and society as a whole.
Quality writing of any kind, but fiction more so, requires leaving the oft-talked about proverbial box. Actions, interaction, and reactions for someone on the Spectrum (assuming they are not heavily masked) diverge from long standing and deeply entrenched expectations of human civilization. More questions arise in us, more doubts set in. Multiple myriad angles of perception yield unconventional viewpoints on nearly every aspect of being human.
It is these less recognized, often flat out rejected takes on existence that allow for the Autistic author to envision wholly alternative worlds and people, and to communicate same to readers.
That may sound like science fiction or a fantasy trope alone. It isn’t. It applies to all fiction. For any editor or agent will tell you that a conventional story is empowered by an unconventional telling. Be that in language, setting, format, vocabulary, the otherwise run of the mill tale is more readable, (not to mention more marketable) if something about it inspires readers to say, “I hadn’t thought of doing it that way.”
By default, we on the Autistic Spectrum are in many cases the square peg. Some of us learn to contort ourselves into passing as circular peg as needed in order to make it through our day, or our life. Others get forcibly slammed into the wrong hole by an overzealous conformist wielding a hammer. When totally unencumbered, however, those on the Spectrum begin by being askew from the norm; we have less distance to travel to the unusual because we tend to live there.
No, of course you don’t need to be Autistic to write fiction than obliterates norms. Still, with determination and practice, those of us on the Spectrum wishing to be an author can, for a change, have the edge over others.
The Autistic Writer: Idea Storms
Once again it’s important for me to point out that very little of what I mention in this series is unique to Autism alone. Being on the Spectrum is a combination, or perhaps a coalition of traits and tendencies, and certain disabilities, depending. And it varies by each individual. And being a writer that is also Autistic adds a dimension that may not be present in those with ASD that have different callings or jobs.
So you yourself may recognize the experience of having many ideas, scenarios, “voices,” situations, settings, etc swirling around in your head. It may happen all the time for you, with high intensity, like a thunderstorm, or be a casual parade of notions passing gradually through and around your direct consciousness like a spring breeze. Probably, like the real weather, it varies from day to day, or even hour to hour.
Such is my own case. And it’s probably a t-storm more often than a gentle rustling of leaves.
The question becomes, how much of this is ripe for storytelling, or writing? I dare say this is where my personal Autism influences matters.
For what inside my mind is potentially valuable or enjoyable to any given demographic in the world? What can be transformed into narrative? What should be?
After all, even to me, much of it is mere “noise.” It’s recalled conversations from years ago, a plan I made but forgot about because I didn’t write it down, an alternative scenario to a past disappointment in my personal life. It all blows around in my mental maelstrom.
Those of course could spawn a great fiction idea. In some ways they have, here and there. Then again, it could end up being impenetrable shit even if I managed to convey the experience to perfection in words. (Infrequent.)
Relationships! In this case, between the energy of my mind and the general reading public as opposed to me as a person to another person. Yet at the core, a patented uncertainty as to the depth of connection between that which is me and that which is another person is still very much in play, as it usually is for those of us on the Spectrum.
Of nearly equal consideration is my own relationship as a writer to that internal tempest of imagery. Long ago I abandoned the attempt to convert every slice of my imagination’s offspring into a coherent story. I believe in writing down thoughts that come to me in a notebook, but I would do almost nothing else for days at a time if I wrote down every single solitary notion that occurs to (intrudes upon?) me in the course of any given day. Triage is vital.
Vital, but not a panacea; I still struggle every now and then with the notion that I am somehow ignoring my next great catalyst for my writing. There is a boatload of random stuff in every mind, and I dare say on average there is more of it inside the mind of an Autistic. It just isn’t all solid material.
(For years I have “seen” a man throw a sword onto the floor of an empty cathedral. Never once has it developed into anything resembling a narrative. Just an image.)
I never really calm the storm. It ebbs and flows on it’s own, sometimes blowing a useful seed into the soil of my writer fields. I carry a notebook with me to catch some of them, just in case. But there’s a lot going on.
Still, for a writer, a better problem to have than being unable to ever see any idea at all.