Hacking Your Executive Function: Transitions

Standard

Welcome to transition week! We’re going to be spending some time focusing on what executive functioning skills and tricks you can use to make it easier to move from one task, thought, or place to another. This may seem incredibly specific, but many people with autism and ADHD struggle with effectively changing their focus, so it’s getting a whole section of its own.

People struggle with a number of types of transitions. One that gets addressed a lot is specific to kids in school when they need to move from one assignment to the next or one class to the next, but I find myself struggling with transitions in all kinds of places: getting out the door and moving to another location. Ending an activity and doing something else. Leaving social situations, which is not only a transition but also a social communication moment so it’s got some extra levels of difficulty.

Sometimes it’s tough to move from one thought to another: I’ll get stuck need to complete a thought or follow something through to its conclusion and can’t move on (this bit me in the butt a lot in school when I was writing papers because I had to explore EVERY thought completely, which meant I would write pages and pages beyond what I was supposed to and couldn’t ever cut it down). One that I have rarely heard mentioned is moving from one person to another. For me this is specifically when those people are parts of different social circles and I have to adjust to different contexts, it can be incredibly difficult to turn off the one version of myself and turn on the other one.

The skills we’re going to talk about this week will apply to some (and maybe all) of these types of transitions, but hopefully throughout the week I’ll address each of them. Sometimes it’s helpful to even identify something as a transition so that you can give yourself more time or insert a break in between the two things.

One of the challenging things about transitions is that moving from one task to another isn’t one skill. It’s a lot of skills, but we don’t typically break it down because for many of us these skills come naturally. First you have to decide when and how you will end one task. You have to remove your focus and attention from that task. You have to figure out how to clean it up/save your work/put away the component. Then you have to determine what you’ll do next and in what order, figure out what you need for the next task and how to get it, acquire all of it, and bring your focus to a new task. All of this needs to be done without getting distracted, without sensory overload, in the correct order, and in many cases while interacting with other people.

I highly recommend looking at all of those steps if you’re struggling with transitions. Which one are you getting stuck on? Did you forget certain steps? Would it help to write out the sequence you need to follow? You can tailor your skills to fit the part that you’re having trouble with. If it’s figuring out what to do next, perhaps write a to do list in advance. If it’s ending the task, work on visual timers or giving yourself concrete stopping points. We’ll talk more about all of those types of skills in later posts this week.

There are a couple of elements of neurodivergent brains that can make it harder to transition. I’d like to call them out so we can reference them when we talk about skills. The first is hyperfocus, which is especially pertinent for autistic brains. If you become hyperfocused on a project, it becomes much more challenging to pull your attention away and end it. There’s also sensory overload: you might be changing environments and sensory inputs during a transition which makes it a prime time for sensory overload. Transitions also require putting things in order, following the sequence, and understanding how the steps relate, which is its whole own element of executive functioning (I’ll be writing about it in a bit). Finally, transition is a prime opportunity for distractions to arise, especially if you’re going to a new location.

Any one of these elements can break down in the process of transition. It can help to figure out which one you’re struggling with and tailor your solutions to that problem.

A final element that I have experienced around transitions and that I know other people experience is anxiety. If you’re not certain how to start the next task, that can be anxiety provoking. If you’re not sure what’s coming next that’s even worse. While I’ll be focusing on practical suggestions in this section, I highly recommend heading back to the emotion regulation posts if you are struggling with a lot of anxiety around transitions. You can pair skills from emotion regulation with the skills we’ll address in this transition section to be effective and feel better.

So now that we’ve identified the challenges of transitions, we’ll head on in to some solutions. Look for a second post soon!