What Is My ADHD Child’s Executive Function Age?

by Sarah Forbes

Executive functions (collectively referred to as executive function and cognitive control) are a set of cognitive processes that are necessary for the cognitive control of behavior: selecting and successfully monitoring behaviors that facilitate the attainment of chosen goals. Executive functions include basic cognitive processes such as attentional control, cognitive inhibition, inhibitory control, working memory, and cognitive flexibility. Higher order executive functions require the simultaneous use of multiple basic executive functions and include planning and fluid intelligence (i.e., reasoning and problem solving).” (from Wikipedia)

 

The brain of the ADHD child is developing at an average 30% behind schedule in the frontal lobe region according to leading ADHD researcher Dr Russell Barkley. The frontal lobe controls regulation. It is the executive function part of the brain. It is the boss, the voice in your brain, the executive assistant, that tells you what to do with what you know and learn. Because this part is behind schedule, children with ADHD brains are not always able to access the information they know to make use of it.

All the files are there in the information section, but the operating system is failing to access the files.

For example, they may know that stoves are hot and yet impulsively touch a hot stove because the part of their brain that says “Wait!” isn’t working on schedule with neurotypical brains. This is because the files stored in the back of their brain that says “Stoves are hot” was not accessed in a timely manner to prohibit touching the stove. It is not because they do not know the stove is hot. It is a failure of the frontal lobe of the brain to access the information they have stored in the memory sections.

Executive function dysregulation generally causes deficiencies in planning, abstract thinking, flexibility and behavioral control. It encompasses many different parts of regulation –from emotional control to physical control over their bodies to organizational abilities– and any one part could be more or less affected by ADHD. It varies by the individual.

Because there are other disorders or injuries that can cause executive delay problems, Executive Function Disorder is a diagnosis in an of itself. Sometimes, someone with ADHD will have both diagnoses. According to Dr. Barkley, (the ADHD researcher who is the source of the 30% behind concept) every ADHD person has executive dysfunction by default to one level or another.

The 30% behind neurotypical people as listed in this graphic is just an average. So your child could be more behind or less behind. He could be more behind in some areas and less behind in others.

For instance, I knew I was impulsive (even though I didn’t know I have ADHD) and didn’t think things through as a teen. So I chose not to get my license until I was 19 and thought I could handle it. Impulsivity was a big deal for me. But I was also a smart kid and knew I wanted to be careful and make good choices. So even though I tended to be impulsive, I was careful about my choices, involving my parents in decision making, asking for advice from trusted adults, and being cautious. This made a huge difference in me not making bad choices as a teen.

When I got married I was 20 which gives me the executive age of 13.33 according to our chart (which is a rule of thumb, not a hard and fast rule). No wonder I had so much trouble organizing our lives, managing our home, working a job, and paying bills! It makes so much sense now. I had to work so much harder than anyone I knew to do these things well.

The chart only goes up to 32 years of age. There is a reason for this. In the human adult, we reach our peak maturity in our early thirties. That means that however much the ADHD brain has developed by the early thirties is where it will stay. However, that does not mean that we cannot learn new coping mechanisms or better skills. It does, however, mean that ADHD adults tend to be about the same Executive Function Age as those who are in their 20s. This makes us a lot of fun actually! Executive function only refers to the regulatory part of our brains, not our intelligence or ability to learn new things. We may tend to be emotionally reactive, impulsive and disorganized compared to other people our age. Medication can help us make up that 30% difference no matter what age we are.

I hope this chart will help you better understand those around you who have ADHD. Please give them a lot of grace –and remind them that you love them no matter what.

If you have ADHD, give yourself a big hug for me. You are awesome. You have worked way harder than everyone else to get to where you are right now. ADHD people are my most favorite people in the whole world. On average, they are kind, loyal, honest, gracious, and compassionate. Don’t let the fact that you are awesome get lost in the science of ADHD. You know how you always felt like you need a housekeeper and a secretary? That is because those parts of your brain don’t work the same way as neurotypical people’s brains do. All those things require your frontal lobe to work efficiently –the frontal lobe is the very part of your brain affected by ADHD. It is okay. Find a tribe of ADHD people who get you. Educate those around you about ADHD.And, above all else, give yourself a lot of grace.