What Is Executive Dysfunction in ADHD?

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What Is Executive Dysfunction in ADHD?

Executive dysfunction, which is also called executive function deficit or disorder, is when the brain has a hard time with the skills of attention, memory, flexible thinking, and organization/time management.

Executive dysfunction isn't an official diagnosis, but rather, a set of symptoms associated with ADHD. Billy Roberts, LISW-S of Focused Mind ADHD Counseling tells us that "the reason executive dysfunction is not a diagnosis is because executive dysfunction can be caused by a variety of conditions including Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), learning disorders, and depression."

When someone has ADHD, they are likely to possess many or all of the symptoms of executive dysfunction.

ADHD is a brain condition, and executive dysfunction is a group of symptoms associated with it, but it's possible to have executive dysfunction and not have ADHD. It is also seen in people with autism.

Billy Roberts, LISW-S

If someone has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), they have executive dysfunction. However, if someone has executive dysfunction, that doesn’t mean they have ADHD.

— Billy Roberts, LISW-S

Roberts says that this is because other conditions can also cause executive dysfunction. Roberts also says that it may manifest differently with ADHD because with conditions like depression, function may be up and down depending on how a person is feeling, where with ADHD, it's a brain issue that doesn't go away.

The History of Executive Dysfunction

While the concept of executive function has been around since the 1800s, Russell Barkley, PhD, who is an author and clinical professor of psychiatry, is credited with publicizing the problem of executive dysfunction specifically as it relates to people with ADHD.

Numerous studies have been done in recent years by assorted scientists about the relationship between executive dysfunction and different brain issues, ranging from ADHD to neurodegenerative diseases.

Types of Executive Dysfunction in People With ADHD

Executive dysfunction is related to several areas of life, some of which are where self-control is needed.

Roberts informs us that "executive dysfunction causes functional impairments in a person’s daily life. These impairments could include the ability to activate oneself on non-preferred tasks, sustain attention and concentration, knowing what to focus on when, working memory (holding something in mind), shifting focus, and planning and organization." Let's look at those in-depth.

Memory

Executive dysfunction has been shown to involve a problem with working memory. Having difficulty with memory can make for enormous challenges in life. With executive dysfunction, there is no limit to the types of memory issues that it can involve: you might forget small details or entire events.

You might leave something at home that you needed for your day, or forget about what you were supposed to do that day entirely.

Organization, Planning, and Time Management

In order to get everything done that we need to, we have to be able to plan tasks, organize what we need to perform them, and get them done in a reasonable amount of time. Executive dysfunction can inhibit this entire process.

Someone with executive dysfunction might be disorganized, may have difficulty making plans or sticking to them once made, and may not be able to complete tasks in the necessary amount of time.

Attention and Concentration

The "A" in ADHD standard for "attention," so it's no surprise that this part of executive dysfunction is an important one. Being able to concentrate and focus is vital to being able to accomplish anything.

With executive dysfunction, it can feel impossible to have sustained attention for a task. Even when the person tries to focus and concentrate on one thing, they may end up doing something entirely different, sometimes without even realizing it.

Behavior and Emotion Control

How we behave and control our emotions plays a big role in how we relate to other people. Those with executive dysfunction might have a harder time than other people regulating their emotions. When you can't regulate how you feel, it becomes very hard to control how you behave. This can lead to behavioral problems, and cause interpersonal conflicts.

Multitasking and Problem Solving

Even in childhood, the ability to do more than one task at a time and to solve problems is important. As you become an adult, it becomes even more vital. However, with executive dysfunction, these can feel like impossible tasks.

Someone may only be able to do one thing at a time, and they may have a very hard time solving problems. One reason that problems can feel difficult is that executive dysfunction affects flexible thinking, which is the ability to see an issue from more than one angle.

Signs of Executive Dysfunction

Someone who experiences executive dysfunction has a difficult time doing some or all of the above things. If a person just has problems in one area, they may not have executive dysfunction. But if they struggle in multiple ways with the above, then chances are their executive functioning is lacking.

The signs of executive dysfunction look similar to the signs of ADHD. Roberts says that "there are many ways someone’s life could be negatively impacted by the inability to hold attention, forgetfulness, and difficulty managing their time. For example, negative impacts could look like not hearing your boss at a meeting, trouble managing finances, or forgetting answers to a test even after hours and hours of study."

Some common signs of executive dysfunction include the following:

  • Being late to social activities, meetings, appointments, school, or work
  • Difficulty making deadlines
  • Problems paying attention
  • Not remembering things
  • Losing possessions
  • Lack of properly prioritizing tasks
  • Behavioral outbursts

The Impact of Lacking Executive Functioning

Knowing all you now know about executive dysfunction, it shouldn't come at all as a surprise that executive dysfunction can have a large impact on a person's life.

Being late too many times can cause someone to lose their job or fail a class, and it can also cause problems in personal relationships. Not remembering important events, dates, or details can make it hard to get anything done properly, as can the inability to prioritize tasks.

Having a hard time organizing yourself and managing your time can lead to frustration at not being able to accomplish things you know you're able to do.

And of course, the inability to control your emotions and your behavior can make personal and professional relationships go off-kilter quickly.

Not having proper executive functioning can lead to a very challenging life. That said, it's not a lost cause. There are steps you can take to get through life more easily, and functionally, even if you have to deal with executive dysfunction.

How to Get Help for Executive Dysfunction

Because executive dysfunction is a set of symptoms and not a diagnosis, you'll need to get an official diagnosis from a medical professional. Only they can determine what other condition may be leading to your executive dysfunction symptoms.

While executive dysfunction is most commonly caused by ADHD, there are many other reasons it could occur. It may co-occur with autism or be the result of a brain injury.

Next, utilizing the practitioners who diagnose you as a resource is a great idea. There may be medications that can help you, or therapy might be the right choice.

Lastly, there are resources available to help you learn behaviors that can reduce the negative impacts of executive dysfunction on your life. For example, ADD and ADHD websites offer tips and tricks to improve memory, and walk step by step through how to break down tasks into more easily digestible and manageable ones.

Regarding living with executive dysfunction, Roberts puts it this way: "After a diagnosis is confirmed, therapy that focuses on learning skills to manage day-to-day life, building a healthy lifestyle that supports one’s brain, and turning ADHD into a superpower is a next step."

He adds that psychiatric treatments can also help, and recommends a holistic approach that enables people to be their best selves. It's possible to live a great life when executive dysfunction is properly cared for.

A Word From Verywell

Executive dysfunction is a challenge, but just like ADHD itself, it can be managed. If you or someone you know is finding it difficult to manage the symptoms of executive dysfunction, don't hesitate to reach out for help from a trained mental health professional.

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4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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