Written by Dr. Inez Van Roy on
August 31, 2021
Written by Dr. Inez Van Roy on:

Medically Reviewed by our Medical Affairs Team

Have you been having difficulty with planning, organizing, and implementing tasks lately? You might be suffering from Executive Dysfunction.

If you are someone who might also be suffering from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, you might be asking, “is executive dysfunction a symptom of ADHD?” That’s what you’ll find out in this article and more as we talk about executive function and ADHD.

So, let’s get started! 

What is executive function?

Executive Function is defined as the management of cognitive processes. The term is used to explain how we plan and carry out tasks in daily life.

It is important for everyone to have some executive functioning capability, but it becomes more challenging when ADHD is present because people with ADHD often struggle with self-regulation, impulse control, and managing emotions.

What is ADHD exactly?

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder is a neurodevelopmental disorder that is characterized by problems with attention span or hyperactivity-impulsivity.

ADHD is the most common psychiatric condition of children, but it can also affect adults who are not able to function as effectively as they would like to in their daily lives.

ADHD is a very common disorder, and it is estimated that it affects approximately 11% of children worldwide, with rates rising to up 40% to 50% for school-age boys. But what is most concerning is the percentage of people who have ADHD but are undiagnosed – about one-third of them.

What is executive dysfunction?

Executive dysfunction is a disorder that is often associated with ADHD and is characterized by having problems organizing, planning, initiating tasks on their own (without prompts), staying focused without disrupting others, or in distracting environments.

People who have executive dysfunction also struggle to complete everyday activities such as remembering daily appointments and errands, among other things. It can be frustrating to try and cope with this problem, especially when you want to be successful in your life.

This is where executive function coaching might be beneficial. Executive Function Coaching is a process that is used to help an individual understand how they can improve their organizational skills, time management techniques, self-regulation strategies among other things. Hence, they feel more confident at being able to complete daily tasks successfully.

If you are someone who is suffering from executive dysfunction, ADHD is not your only concern or diagnosis because people can suffer from both disorders and have lived successful lives in the past and present!

If this sounds like something that is happening to you, schedule a consultation with a psychologist so you can talk about your symptoms and how they can help you.

Types of Executive Dysfunction

There are five common types of executive dysfunction, and they include the following:

Difficulty to self-monitor

Self-monitoring is the ability to recognize when you make a mistake or go off on the wrong track. It is important because it helps people learn from their mistakes instead of repeating them again and again. This is especially hard for those with ADHD.

Difficulty to initiate tasks

Initiation is the ability to get started on a task without being prompted by someone else or an outside prompt (e.g., calendar alert).

This is also difficult for those with ADHD because it is hard to transition into different tasks and environments easily. When you have executive dysfunction, there is less room in your day to get things done.

Poor working memory

Having a good working memory is the ability to keep in mind information that is relevant for a particular task, such as remembering dates and times when you are completing errands or recalling the phone numbers of people you meet during your day.

It is important because it helps individuals stay organized and on top of what they need to do next.

Difficulty to control emotions

Emotional control is the ability to manage one’s emotions in a healthy way, so they do not interfere with their thoughts and actions.

This is important for many reasons, such as staying calm when you are trying to complete tasks or focusing on your work instead of letting negative thoughts get in your head.

Difficulty staying organized.

Organization is the ability to categorize work and tasks in a systematic fashion, so they do not run into problems down the line (e.g., misplacing important files). 

This is important because it helps an individual be more efficient when completing daily errands or other work-related activities.

Executive Dysfunction and ADHD

As you can see, executive dysfunction is a disorder that is common among people with ADHD, but it is not limited to those diagnosed with the disorder. This is because many individuals struggle to control their emotions and stay organized—two of the main symptoms associated with executive dysfunction.

Let’s dive deeper into the common and specific symptoms of ADHD and executive dysfunction.

Executive Dysfunction Symptoms

There is a difference between having ADHD symptoms and executive dysfunction symptoms.

Symptoms of ADHD include:

  • inattention
  • disorganization
  • restlessness
  • impatience

The key difference is that people with ADHD will have these problems across many different settings (e.g., home or work), but for someone who has executive dysfunction—they may have problems in one area or another depending on the situation.

Symptoms of executive dysfunction include:

  • Difficulty to self-monitor (e.g., blurting out answers during a meeting)
  • Difficulty initiating tasks (e.g., getting started with household chores when you get home from work)
  • Poor working memory
  • Difficulty controlling emotions (e.g., getting mad when you can’t find your car keys)
  • Difficulty staying organized (e.g., putting important papers in the wrong file folder or having a messy desk).

If this is something that is happening to you, schedule an appointment with a psychologist so they can help you overcome your executive dysfunction symptoms and get back to living the life you want.

How do executive functions develop?

Executive functions develop as individuals get older.

This is because when they are younger, their brains have not fully developed yet, and it is hard for them to understand how to time manage or organize themselves in a systematic fashion as adults can do easily.

There is also research that suggests executive function skills improve with age due to experience (e.g., learning from mistakes is easier with age because you have made them before).

Is executive dysfunction a symptom of ADHD?

Yes, studies suggest that people who are diagnosed with ADHD will sometimes struggle with executive functions as well.

This is why it is important for people who think they might have ADHD or ADHD symptoms (e.g., inattention, restlessness) to get evaluated by a mental health professional so they understand the full picture of their condition and can help them develop strategies for overcoming executive dysfunction in certain areas.

How is ADHD diagnosed?

There are two ways that an individual is typically diagnosed with ADHD: through self-reports or through clinical observation.

Specifically, they will either complete a self-report questionnaire or have an evaluation with a psychologist who is trained in ADHD diagnosis and can ask you questions about how ADHD is affecting your life on a daily basis (e.g., difficulty completing tasks).

From there, they can help to develop strategies that will help you overcome your symptoms.

What is the connection between ADHD and executive dysfunction?

There is a strong correlation between ADHD diagnosis and executive dysfunction (e.g., difficulty with organization, time management).

This is why it is important to understand what is going on if you are dealing with these types of problems in certain areas so that way you can get the help you need.

How does ADHD affect executive functioning?

There is strong evidence that ADHD affects the brain regions responsible for executive functions.

Specifically, these are the prefrontal cortex (decision making and problem-solving), basal ganglia (processing speed), anterior cingulate gyrus (attention).

If you have ADHD, this means your brain likely has less dopamine than a person without ADHD, which is why it is harder for you to pay attention and control your impulses.

The good news is that there are strategies (e.g., medication, counseling) that can help with executive dysfunction symptoms in ADHD individuals!

How is ADHD treated?

There are three main ways to treat ADHD: behavior therapy, coaching, or medication.

Specifically, behavior therapy is about changing the way you respond to a situation.

For example, if your ADHD is making it hard for you to stay organized in the workplace, then behavioral therapy would be focused on teaching you coping skills (e.g., keep lists) that will help with this area of executive dysfunction as well as reward structures to motivate you (e.g., getting a treat when you complete your work).

Coaching is about helping people understand their ADHD and what is going on with them so that they can develop strategies for overcoming executive dysfunction symptoms in certain areas of life.

Lastly, medication is typically used as a last resort because it does not teach people how to deal with ADHD on their own.

However, medication might be necessary for some individuals because they need that chemical boost (e.g., dopamine) in order to control their executive function symptoms naturally over time.

What disorders include executive dysfunction? 

There is a strong link between ADHD and executive dysfunction.

However, there are other disorders that include symptoms of executive function as well (e.g., OCD).

Specifically, these individuals will have difficulty with attention, decision-making, and inhibition.

If you think this is going on for you or someone else in your life, it is important to talk with a mental health professional about this and find out what is going on so you can get the help that is necessary.

How to deal with executive dysfunction?

If you or someone else is struggling with executive dysfunction, there are strategies that can help, such as individual therapy and coaching.

Specifically, ADHD coach training is focused on helping people understand their ADHD so they can develop a framework for coping with executive function symptoms over time through strategy development (e.g., creating checklists) and implementation (e.g., rewarding yourself when you complete a task).

Additionally, cognitive behavioral therapy is focused on helping people change their response to ADHD executive dysfunction so that they can learn how to overcome these types of challenges in the future.

How to improve executive function in ADHD adults?

There is no cure for ADHD, but there are strategies that can help!

Specifically, the best way to improve executive function is through coaching and therapy.

For example, a therapist might focus on teaching you skills (e.g., how to organize your desk) or talking about certain areas of life that ADHD executive function symptoms will impact (e.g., how is your romantic relationship affected by ADHD?).

Additionally, coaching is focused on helping you understand the root cause of why executive dysfunction is happening and developing strategies to overcome these challenges in your work or personal life.

Coaching is a great option because it is not just about talking but also teaching skills and strategies so that you can become more self-aware and gain control of your executive dysfunction symptoms in the future.

Why is executive function so important?

Executive function is the management system of our brain, and it is involved in everyday tasks.

For example, attention is a key part of executive functioning because ADHD adults struggle with being hyper-focused on one thing at a time. Additionally, inhibition is another element that affects individuals with ADHD since those with ADHD have trouble with decision-making and impulse control.

These symptoms are why executive function is so important because it is the management system of our brain, making sure we get things done in a timely manner without too many mistakes or distractions along the way.

Final Thoughts

If you or someone in your life is struggling with ADHD and executive dysfunction, know that there is help available.

Specifically, ADHD coach training can teach individuals how to use strategies such as checklists and reward systems in order to deal with their executive dysfunction symptoms.

Additionally, cognitive behavioral therapy is focused on helping people understand why these challenges are happening so that they can learn new ways to adapt and cope.

If you are interested in learning more about ADHD, executive dysfunction, and how to deal with them more efficiently, start a consultation with a mental health professional.

So, you can get the help you need in understanding the root cause of why executive dysfunction is happening to you and what new strategies you can use.

What is your experience with executive dysfunction? Do you have any more questions on how to improve executive function in adults with ADHD? Let us know in the comments below!

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