‘My Working Memory Isn’t Working’: autism, forgetfulness and executive dysfunction

If you ask me to do something, I’m not going to remember to do it. 


If I can get the thing done the moment after you ask me, then sure, it will probably get done. If you ask me to do two things concurrently, the act of doing one immediately will wipe any recollection of the second from my brain. If you ask me whilst I’m doing something else, them you are completely out of luck, my friend.

I mention this because I have had conflict with people near to me over the past few weeks for not doing things that I have been asked to do. My failure in this respect is categorised as laziness. deliberate avoidance of responsibility or, at the most pleasant, a terrible habit of not listening properly.

For a long time, I agreed with these assessments. I didn’t have any other perspectives to  work from. I internalised the idea that maybe I was just ‘lazy’, maybe I was incapable of being a responsible person, maybe I was, ultimately, just a terrible human being who should sit in the corner and take a long hard look at herself and her intolerable behaviour.  

This is why diagnosis, resources and availability of communication channels between autistic people is so important. Because I may have continued to labour under this cycle of self-criticism if I hadn’t been able to find out what was really going on. 

My best friend, for example, is a huge source of comfort and information for me. She is the person that nudged me towards the idea that I might be autistic (so you can blame this whole thing on her – I take no responsibility). When I came whining to her side (or our chat box), she was there with a sympathetic ear and some ideas on how we could make life easier. 

Perhaps the most memorable being:

“I’ve told them that if they don’t write it down or email it to me, clearly they don’t want it from me that badly.”

I’ve spoken before about my struggles with executive dysfunction: that is, the inability to communicate from my brain to my body the thing that my brain knows I need to do. This isn’t the same as that, although I feel the same pathways somewhere in my skull may be involved. 

This is about the retention of information or instructions, and the fact that I can’t seem to hold onto it if it’s delivered in a fly-by fashion. 

It’s not nearly so much of an issue at work. This is because most things are either discussed in a meeting environment, when I have a pen and paper to hand to write it down, or they’re emailed straight to me, or discussed with me in depth and then emailed over. This isn’t only because I’ve discussed with them that this is the best way for me to work, but because that’s sort of how a lot of workplaces operate. 

But it is an issue with things home. And sometimes that’s heartbreaking.

It’s heartbreaking because the people I want the most to love me look at me with disappointment. They get irritated with me. They get cross with me. But we told you! they say. Why did you ignore us? Why didn’t you do as we asked? Why don’t you pull your weight in this house?

And I get defensive. I withdraw into myself, huffing and puffing like the tension and anger is a shield. I choose to martyr myself on the hill of assertions that they didn’t tell me, even if I don’t know whether they did because I can’t remember. 

Sometimes I want to scream that I can’t help it, that I lose those memories, that it’s not on purpose, but I don’t want them to think I am using my autism as an excuse to get out of my responsibilities. I want to ask for help, but I’m worried I will be told this is my problem, I need to come up with a strategy, and that I need to be an independent and responsible adult about this.

But I’m no more able to teach my brain to remember these things than I would I would be able to teach myself to get a high score on a DDR machine with one leg. I could do it, maybe, but I’d need some extra support, and for that I need other people. I need some help. 

As hard as I try to remember what I’ve been asked to do, I need other people to try and remember to ask me in a slightly different way. As much as I try to write down and make schedules to do things people want me to do outside of my routine, I need those same people to try and be more gentle if I forget and recognise that, as hard as I try, this is not a conscious thing. 

Because I am trying. I promise you that.I am trying ever so hard to be independent, and responsible, and to contribute equally to my immediate surroundings. 

I understand that people get frustrated. But it’s neither productive nor likely to change the situation in any way. My brain is busy. It’s juggling so many things, and if you throw something else at me without warning, the likelihood is that I’m going to miss it altogether or drop it before its first rotation is complete. 

Before I write these, I like to have a look online and see if I can get any deeper understanding of what might be going on. And the prominent phrase that keeps coming up is ‘working memory’. This is the drawer in your head that temporarily stores things that need to be actioned in the short term. And it seems that, much like myself, many autistic adults report having several holes in the bottom of this drawer, down which certain memories roll to be lost forever in the dusty depths. 

Our long-term memory drawers are fine. In fact, when it comes to things that perk our interest, the drawers are twice the size and super-reinforced to avoid leakage.

It turns out that working memory is indeed part of the executive functions, so this actually does tie in with the ‘I know I need to do the thing but my body won’t do the thing’ executive dysfunction that I mentioned earlier – it’s just a different present in the lucky dip bag of dysfunctions in my cognitive processes. 

Having the words, and the knowledge that I am not alone, is powerful. Being able to explain what is going on, and why it is happening, and that you are not the only one experiencing this, is vital in having the confidence to ask for help – to say ‘if I make some changes, and you make some changes, we can meet in the middle’. 

For example, I always have someone with me when I have an appointment, as I am certain to emerge entirely unable to repeat anything I have been told. If the worst comes to the worst, I’ll have one of my ‘appropriate adults’ on speakerphone, so they can hear everything and bring up anything I forget to say.

We just need to recognise that same issue is behind all those times I have been asked to do something, or given pertinent information, and have then promptly forgotten everything that has been said and toddled off to do the things my brain has decided to retain. 

So I’m asking for a magnetic whiteboard for Christmas. 

Because I am just that punk rock.

Author: QueerlyAutistic
Erin Ekins is a queer autistic writer, speaker and attempter of activism. She has an interest in all areas of autistic social justice, but has a particular passion for improving understanding and acceptance of the intersection of autism and queerness. She runs the blog queerlyautistic.com and is the author of the upcoming book 'Queerly Autistic: The Ultimate Guide for LGBTQIA+ Teens on the Spectrum'. By day, she works in campaigning and influencing at a disability related charity, but, by night, she is inhabits a busy space between angry internet person and overly-excited fangirl.

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