Forgettory and Neurodiversity

Forgettory and neurodiversity

Imagine a bookshelf that only holds three books, but you have nine books that you need to put on the shelf. Every time you add another book over the first three, the others fall off. You now need to catch the book that has fallen and try and place it back on the shelf – as you do the next book falls. This cycle continues throughout the day! Welcome to forgettory and neurodiversity

For many neurodivergent individuals, this is the reality of how their short-term memory works.

What this looks like in my life. As I wake up in the morning with a bunch of ideas floating around in my head, as soon as I interact with a member of my family those ideas are gone and replaced with the conversations and requirements of the day. This cycle then continues as I move to the next part of the day, be it breakfast, exercise, or work. What seems to happen is a continuous fight to hold on to great ideas and actions. This can be incredibly debilitating as the energy required trying to hold onto the ideas or books that have fallen from the shelf is immense. What is more frustrating is that when you put something back on the shelf you are likely to have pushed something else off and the cycle goes on again.

This doesn’t stop here, we need our short-term memory for our working memory to function effectively. The more restricted our short-term memory is, the more difficult it is to use our working memory effectively to solve problems, hold ideas and work with complicated or sometimes not-so-complicated issues.

Both areas of memory are under the concept of executive function (EF). Executive function is a cluster of skills that are necessary for efficient and effective future behaviours. These skills are the ones that sit outside of what we do automatically.

For example, you may have done the following without even thinking about it:

  • Got out of bed
  • Made a cup of tea
  • Checked your phone
  • Made your porridge
  • Unloaded the dishwasher (not for all of us I know).

Executive function (EF) comes into its own when we attempt to do new things in different situations. These situations don’t always need to be critically complicated, just different from what we expect to do on autopilot and can include things like:

  • Changing the number of people you are making porridge for
  • Meeting someone new for the first time
  • Someone giving you a slot car racing toy (Scalextrics) for your children (that’s in pieces with no instructions).

These are my experiences, it is important to note that there is a ground of evidence showing EF is relevant to a number of neurodivergent conditions including ADHD, ASD/C, developmental coordination disorder DCD (also known as dyspraxia), dyslexia, and dyscalculia.

How these impact you

Getting started:

  • The actual process of starting can be really challenging when you’re not sure you have got everything you need in your memory.
  • Reflecting on what you need can sometimes make it even harder to get moving.
  • Understanding how long something can take has a significant impact as it can feel like an unknown.

Not being kind to yourself:

  • Thinking you are good enough.
  • Focusing on the negatives.
  • Not recognising the things you do well.

Running out of road:

  • Knowing that there are things you have forgotten.
  • Not having enough time to process.
  • Feeling you have to make decisions even though you’re not ready to.
  • Trying to be like everyone else.

Staying in the zone:

  • Staying on task.
  • Moving from one task to another.
  • Finding it hard to get your head around things.

What might happen next:

  • Sometimes when you run out of road (in terms of processing and EF) it’s hard to think about what might happen next based on previous experience.
  • It’s also very challenging to predict what difficulties or challenges you might face in the future.

Being all out all of the time:

  • Perception of time can often be linked.
  • This makes it difficult to remember appointments.
  • Putting the right amount of time aside to complete tasks.
  • Break things down into smaller tasks and understanding what the time indications are.

What can be done?

The executive function often forms the glue that allows us to deploy our skills effectively. I’ve talked before about the fact we need to help neurodivergent individuals amplify their strengths and manage the things that they find difficult. Unfortunately, if they are not able to use their strengths because their executive function doesn’t allow them to be present, they will be unable to thrive. What is often needed is skills and frameworks to help the individual unleash their potential, these could look like:

Checking in on how well things are going.

  • What does the day look like?
  • Have you got enough time to do the things you have set before you?
  • Who do you feel you need to ask about what to do next?
  • Do you need space to put things in perspective?
  • Who are you going to be accountable to?
  • What are you going to do when things go wrong?
  • What is your Banana?

Definition of banana – it is the thing you have in your back pocket. It gives you time and space to reset yourself. My Banana is often around taking a short break to do something completely different, for example skipping.

Lists and processes

Creating a list of activities is a really helpful way to understand what needs to be done.

Don’t treat these like a stick!

Treat them as a way to formulate your plan for the day.

Processes are also useful as once you have done something once:

  • Record it
  • Review it
  • Revisit it – make it better next time!

Once it is written down, you have something to compare it against, removing the need to rethink how you are going to do something again. It is also a great tool to go to when you have run out of road as you have already done your thinking.

Reflect on what is happening, take stock and make sure you ask someone else to check in on your belief of what’s going on. It is worth pre-emptively asking someone to help so when you need support, they already know how to serve you best.

Remove the tat and rubbish to make space for this thinking.

This could be about coming away from your current work environment, tidying up, or turning off your email. What is important is you are not distracted when you are working on your processes.

Think about the team you work with, who loves doing certain tasks? What tasks do you love doing? How can you collaborate to get the most out of both of you and the people you work with? What tasks should be automated or relegated?

Navigating this space is tricky, especially on your own. If this article rings true, I would encourage you to reflect on it with someone you trust at work or reach out to a workplace coach who can help you move through this space.

If you would like to have a conversation with me about this topic for yourself or someone you lead please get in contact.

Book shelf idea credit: Janette Beetham