Executive function is a general umbrella term for various cognitive functions, most notably those related to planning, impulse control, working memory, and for monitoring action. Executive dysfunction, by contrast, is a term used to describe cases where executive functioning of the individual seems to have broken down in some sense, leading to impaired functioning in day to day life.
I am interested in executive malfunctioning because it is associated with neurodivergence more broadly rather than a specific diagnosis. Things ranging from autism, to Tourette’s, to ADHD, have all been theorised as manifestations of executive dysfunction. By the same token, strong executive functioning is symbolic of the neurotypical, or at least the neurotypical of late capitalism in global North.
Consider the metaphors used to explain executive functioning. The difference is perhaps most often clarified with reference to how companies function. As clinical psychologist Tony Attwood (2007: 232) writes in his book The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome: “think of a chief executive of a large company, who has the ability to perceive the ‘big picture’, can consider the potential outcomes of various decisions, is able to organize resources and knowledge, plan and prioritize within the required time frame, and modify decisions based on results.” For Attwood, this symbolises the neurotypical with good executive functioning. By contrast “Such executive function skills may be significantly delayed” among neurodivergent populations (ibid.)
Importantly, not only is the metaphor of the successful manager or executive used to explain the difference between executive function and neurodivergent functioning. The personal traits associated with executive functioning are also literally the traits associated with success in office jobs and managerial roles. Consider, for instance, how webmd.com, in its summary of executive functioning, states that executive function helps you ‘manage time’, ‘pay attention’, ‘plan and organise’, ‘avoid saying the wrong thing’, ‘remember details’, and ‘multitask’. The way it reads is more like a general list of skills required for getting a job as an office manager than a naturally grouped cluster of cognitive mechanisms.
Perhaps it should not be surprising that executive functioning is symbolic of the contemporary neurotypical. After all, what better for the ideal human of neoliberal societies than to be a manager who controls a successful company? Fitting in like this, all without causing too much trouble for the dominant power structures, is valued as supporting the system. The neurotypical is thus symbolised as the competent manager. Neurodivergence – the autistic whistle-blower, or the chaos energy of ADHD for instance – is seen as a problem hindering the smooth functioning of the system, and which therefore needs to be controlled and fixed.
This brings me to how, today, many neurodivergent people have internalised this discourse, and refer to whatever they happen to find hard personally as a problem with their executive functioning. I do not want to dismiss the ways in which this can be useful or accurate (I sometimes describe my own daily struggles as a matter of executive dysfunction). But it is worth considering how someone like Foucault may have seen the internalisation of such medicalised discourses as a form of self-monitoring, imposed to help maintain the status quo.
Looked at this way, the irony is that executive dysfunction is framed as a failure in ability to self-monitor, yet by adopting and internalising the concept of executive dysfunction, we dysfunctionals are expressing an ability to self monitor. If this is so, however, there is a sense in which executive dysfunction may be not so much a failure in the ability to self-monitor, but rather an ideologically obscured ability to do so.