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Five common impacts of Executive Function Challenges on Neurodiverse Couples. Part 2

By Robin Tate

In the previous article (part ONE), I laid the foundation of what a professional or mixed-neurotype couple needs to know about executive function in relationships. In part two I will answer the question “what are five common impacts of EF challenges on a couple?” For each obstacle listed I will give an example as well as an antidote to overcome the EF challenge(s) as a team.


Five Common Impacts of Executive Function Deficient on Neurodiverse Couples:

1) Moving from knowing to doing:


It’s common that the high achieving neurodivergent adults I work with have read a lot on a variety of topics to be as successful as they are in their lives, especially at work. Most people I meet know enough that they are able to land a date, get married and like myself they have achieved success in their chosen career. My point is that knowing is not the obstacle, the "hard" exists in the doing.


How does this show up in the relationship?


Too many couples have sought couples counseling with a mental health professional to "fail" or stop feeling defeated. I will commonly hear that the neurodivergent partner will not do what the assignments are and they do not "want" to change or work on things. At further investigation this is not true, the Autistic partner will state that they do want to but in fact didn’t know that they were expected to do any work between sessions. The helping professional that they worked with didn't have understanding of their Neurodiversity and the variety of challenges that exist for them given their neurotype.


Antidote: Consider the way that each person thinks and their strengths/challenges. Develop a plan for doing any task in the way that the person can and will complete the task. It’s not about the perfect solution or outcome, it’s about what will work and what can actually be accomplished.


2) Shared Responsibility:

Many times I meet a couple for the first time I hear that one person is doing and managing "everything". This sets the stage for a parent-child relationship and again can send the signal that the person who isn’t doing most of the work is “lazy” or lacking desire to work.


In fact the cause is different. Most Autistic/ADHD clients are working really hard to complete the tasks that they know they are responsible to complete. If they knew what they were responsible to do and had a realistic plan then they would be doing more.


Antidote: Together the couples can list and define all tasks that are the responsibility of both people and then form agreements as to who will be responsible for each task. Schedule and plan how and when these tasks will be completed. What reminders and accountability will help? Will there be a team or individual reward?


3) Communication:


Most people who know about Autism know that many of the struggles are rooted in communication. What isn’t well known is that communication overlaps with executive function and that many times the root is not just in communication. It’s common to find communication challenges that coincide with EF struggles.


As a further complication many Autistic (and some non-autistic) adults are afraid of conflict. It’s common to hear that someone said “yes” to a request without really understanding what was expected or seeing the logic. Sometimes, a client will say that they committed to the task just because they wanted to stop talking about it.

One example of this may sound like “I asked my partner to complete this large task and he/she stated that they would, but didn’t.” There are many reasons this can happen but for today let’s focus on the EF skills needed and the antidote.


Antidote: It’s essential to assure that any agreements are defined and that each person understands what is asked or expected of them. Write down the task and "chunk" it into the steps required to achieve the task. Agree to what needs done and assure that each person understands the details. Discuss any possible obstacles, create strategies to overcome them. Assign a deadline and a way to check in. If help is needed be safe with each other and work as a team to chunk the task further or complete the task together.


4) Remembering Agreements:

Working memory, (the ability to hold information in the brain and manipulate it), is often a challenges for Autistic/ADHD clients. When this is a challenge the amount of tasks and information a person can remember to act on is limited. This mixed with a distracted brain that is always thinking a lot of thoughts or can become hyper-focused on one important item AND struggles with "time blindness" create the perfect environment to honestly forget.


This shows up in a person’s life as failed trips to the grocery store, children who are left at school and agreed upon household chores that are left incomplete.


It’s very hard for a neurotypical partner and even the unaware neurodivergent person to believe that these brain challenges are real and that the person forgetting isn’t lazy or disengaged.


Antidote: Awareness that this is a real neurological struggle and that its necessary (not optional) to externalize and make information concrete. Write lists down and keep them within clear view. If something is in your way you will notice it. Some people use pictures for their grocery list rather than words. Auditory reminders as well as visual reminders help. For some they need to role-play, draw pictures of their day or use gestures as they visualize themselves going through their day prior to doing it.


5) Emotional Regulation:

Keeping feelings at the “just right” place for the situation is a struggle for most people who have EF challenges. There are a lot of reasons for a person who has EF to become upset. He/she may be overloaded by the amount of tasks that they have, the pace and deadlines may not match how their brain works, it could be a struggle to prioritize tasks, they may be over stimulated by a sensory experience that they are having or perhaps it’s the end of the day and they are tired from "masking" all day.


At the end of the day the person my come home and shutdown. He or she may be irritable (snapping, shouting, displaying negative energy, etc.) for what looks like no reason. He or she may not be aware of why they are snapping at their partner or feeling the need to indulge in some unhealthy coping like drinking, over eating, gambling or watching pornography. This is very hard for the person without EF challenges to understand, and Autistic partners without awareness may not know why they have these behaviors or know to talk about their needs with their non-autistic partner.


Antidote: Maintain a schedule of regulation strategies that are known to help each person daily. Create a written list of strategies that help to get your heart rate under 100 during an acute upset. Create language or gestures to talk with your partner about their emotional state and a plan to work as a team to help each other rather than against each other when either partner is dysregulated. Proactively it helps to assess situations that may cause deregulation and adjust the couples and families expectations to be more realistic. You may do less in a day but the question is one of quality vs. quantity. Most couples I work with come to agree that having one quality interaction is more valuable than having three in a day that end in a shutdown or another form of upset.


Looking ahead when you, your partner or client seems to be stuck, zoom out and think broader. Is the person resistant to change or are they impacted by a challenge with executive function? If so, can you help make an accommodation or modify the environment to achieve success together?


Robin describes a little about herself:

I am a professionally trained Teacher and Coach who is passionate about providing the best experience to my clients. As well as training, I have an in-depth understanding of the impacts of living with an Asperger’s Profile and/or ADHD in a world that is neurotypical. My approach to coaching is client-centered and strength-based. I join with clients to work through obstacles and meet self-determined goals. For Neurodivergent adults, challenges are often rooted in neurological differences which impact communication, executive function, and/or sensory regulation. As an experienced educator, I also have an understanding of learning disabilities, learning styles, accommodations, and a toolbox of strategies.

Coaching and education services are complementary to a variety of other professional services. When needed, I easily collaborate with other professionals and family members.


I meet with clients via online video calls (worldwide). I also meet with clients in person, as agreed to be necessary and safe on a case-by-case basis.


Find her at: https://robintatellc.com/

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