Executive function means being able to see the big picture and sort through details to arrive at a good decision. You probably have met more than a few people with very poor executive function. This person is probably very smart but seemingly incompetent in one area—often at work, or in daily life skills, or both. Executive function disorder is common among people with Asperger Syndrome.

I have terrible executive function. Sometimes I make decisions that are so bad that I look like I’m being ridiculous on purpose. It’s simply unbelievable to many people that I could make such incompetent decisions. But in the moment, I can’t see it.

To be sure, I can see it in other people. When I’m coaching others I can tell within five minutes if I’m dealing with someone with poor executive function. Many times I have said, “The crux of your career problems is that you have an executive function problem.” And after the person does a bit of searching on Google, they thank me over and over again for helping them understand why their life felt like it was falling apart and they couldn’t stop it.

My inability to get proper ID is an example of executive function problems. I can tell you this—I know it intellectually. But still, if I had this story to do all over again, I’m not sure I would have done anything better except maybe pay someone to help me sooner. Executive function is the biggest problem I have and the hardest problem to make other people understand. But maybe this post will help you understand the full extent of an executive function gap.

In 2008 I took more than 50 flights within the US. With no photo ID. You’d be surprised how easy that is to do. Los Angeles has so many people coming through with no photo ID that there are 40 people on staff to check people with no ID. At O’Hare they called a special phone number and then gave me the choice of three street names and I had to pick the one I had never lived on.

In LaGuardia I lied. They asked what happened to my ID and I said I lost it. They asked why I didn’t get a new ID. I said I just lost it last week. I only lied because I thought I’d sound like a crazy person for not having any ID for more than a year.

The truth is that I didn’t replace the lost ID because I couldn’t. I tried.

Since I changed my name, my birth certificate no longer works as ID. I need two more pieces of paper to show who I am and people don’t like that. So getting ID started to be a fuss.

I realized that my social security card no longer worked. I needed to change the name on it. But I didn’t. I threw it out. I didn’t know that just because it no longer officially works doesn’t mean you should throw it out. Is there a word that is the opposite of hoarder? That’s me.

I got used to using my passport as my ID. But while living in Madison, I lost my passport during a trip. People told me not to take my passport everywhere. But I had to–it was my only ID.

That is bad, because in Madison you need a driver’s license. Because you have to drive.

You need a lot of stuff to get a driver’s license. You need a state-issued ID. You need a picture ID. You need a social security card. You need all that.

But every time I went to the DMV to try to get a license I wouldn’t really get all that list of stuff. I’d get some of it. I’d sort of try to get the stuff but I couldn’t do it.

It turns out the first offense for driving without a license is a $200 fine. That seemed okay.

I got that fine in about two months of driving. So I went back to the DMV. But now I had an unpaid ticket, and you can’t pay the ticket at the DMV.

Then I got another moving violation and my license got suspended.

But you cannot live in Wisconsin and not drive. So I drove. I tried to drive only a little bit. And I told myself I would get my license as soon as the suspension was over.

I got pulled over again at 3am when I was coming back from a business trip. I was driving down the middle of the road. On the line.

They had me step out of the car to take a drunk driving test.

The said put your right hand on your nose. I got the wrong hand. I told them I don’t know my left and right.

They ignored me. They told me to lift my left leg, and they pointed to my left leg so I’d get it right.

I lifted it really high, almost to my shoulder, because I can, because of yoga, and I wanted to impress them with my sobriety.

They told me I need to follow directions if I’m going to pass the test.

I walked in a straight line. They told me they were shocked, but I passed.

Still, they impounded my car because I was driving on a suspension and they drove me home in the police car.

I had my friend pick up my car. And then I drove it. In hindsight, there were better alternatives than that. But at the time I didn’t see any.

Just as my suspension ended, I got pulled over.

The policeman said to me, “Do you know why you got pulled over?”

I said, “No.”

He said, “Your tags are expired.”

I was shocked. I didn’t think people really kept track of their tags.

He said, “Can I see your license?”

I started crying.

The kids said, from the back seat, “Are you in trouble? Are you going to jail? Did you break the law?”

I asked the policeman if I could get out of the car and talk to him because I didn’t want my kids to hear.

He said okay.

I explained that I didn’t have a license. I told him I’ve been trying to get one but I couldn’t and then I got it suspended and I said please don’t make it so it’s suspended again. I’ll never get a license.

He gave the kids stickers and coloring books while he made calls on his radio and wrote tickets in his car. He ticketed me for the tags but not the license.

I went back to get a license and I couldn’t do it. I didn’t have the right combination of name and address to match everything. I had changed my name and where I live so often that nothing matched. I went home discouraged.

I started thinking like a felon. I was scared of the police.  I noticed them all the time. Sometimes I’d get so nervous driving behind a police car that I’d make a turn, just to get away.

You’re probably wondering what the Farmer was doing through all of this. He was having a complete shit fit. He was trying to understand why I couldn’t get a license. He was trying to tell me that I needed to take the rules seriously. He was telling me that I was going to ruin his life and the kids’ lives if I didn’t get a license.

To his credit he was always really nice about it. He knows me well. He knows that it is probably true that I cannot navigate bureaucracy by myself.

Slowly, I started taking steps to get my license. I hired someone to help me. I was making progress. I had a Wisconsin State ID and a social security card. And I was gearing up to the take the written exam.

To give you and idea of how hard it is for me to take a standardized test, when I took the GRE I scored in the 17th percentile. I think that’s where people score when English is not their first—or second—language.

My son sat next to me while I surreptitiously popped a Xanax and started the test.

The DMV person told my son he had to sit farther away from me.

There are a lot of questions that I’ve studied for. For example, I know that if you hit a deer and you do not take it, the next driver can take the deer home for himself.

I pass the written test. The Farmer and Jeanenne have a mini-celebration.

Jeanenne drives me to the DMV in Darlington to take the road test.  I wait too long at intersections but they still pass me.

Then they let me take six photos until I get one I like.

And Jeanenne says, “It’s amazing that even when you are trying to follow the rules and be like everyone else, you still get people to make exceptions for you. “

But look. It’s a good picture:

127 replies
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  1. Jane?
    Jane? says:

    Wow, you just told my story, except I have ADD, not Aspberger’s. I went without any identification for more than 3 years. (I drove the entire time.) Finally, I decided to make a game of it. I created a notebook with the goal of trying to get every form of ID possible, so that I would never have to explain to some bureaucrat why I can’t follow society’s rules. I’ve almost succeeded, except that the State of Texas thinks I’m Ellen, not Jane. Close enough.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      The second link in this post is a discussion of the difference between attention deficit disorder and executive function disorder. I thought the differences were really interesting.

      Actually, the process of sorting things is so interesting to me — it’s a way to learn more about things, through the gaps between things.


  2. Joanne K-J
    Joanne K-J says:

    By the number of posts complimenting your ID pic I am thinking that “maybe this post will help you understand the full extent of an executive function gap” was overlooked by some of your readers. My step-son has Asperger’s and I don’t count “executive function” as one of my husband’s strong suits. I on the other hand have a highly evolved sense of order that is constantly challenged. Lack of EF doesn’t just frustrate the individual who suffers from it but co-workers and loved ones are also deeply effected. As you probably know, people with Asperger’s suffer from mind-blindness, if you could see what your behavior was doing to the people around you, well then, I guess you wouldn’t be doing it would you. Quite a hamster wheel you find yourself on. Much luck. Don’t move to NJ, the ID requirements would have your head spinning.

    • Lisa M
      Lisa M says:

      I can’t speak for all, but for myself I may miss what impact my actions or behavior may have in the moment or short term, but I see the patterns evolving and I -know- that my executive dysfunction, my autism and adhd cause problems, frustration and pain to those close to me. It tears me apart in ways I can’t begin to describe, and I am constantly trying new things, new diets, research, medication, to try and change or function better. It is humiliating, because people try and tell me how easy something is, and how stupid it is to get stumped by something like filling out the right paperwork. Trust me – we know exactly how stupid it is, and how easy it “should” be.
      There is no option for me to just “not do it”… At least nothing I have found yet. I know that it is hard to understand, hard to believe it could be a real problem when it looks like laziness or a lack of motivation, and it taxes the resources of those around us as well as ourselves. This makes the problem so much more insidious.
      I know for me, having a loved one around that has patience, compassion and the willingness to try new approaches when the old ways dont work, means the world.

  3. Karina
    Karina says:

    I will admit, reading your blog is a guilty pleasure of mine. Not that I don’t get good advice, I do but I think it’s your honesty that gets to me. I guess it reminds me that life is really just one big adventure: there’s failures, successes, but a lot more failures but that’s okay. There’s nothing to be ashamed of.

    I don’t know how else to tell you that I appreciate your writing and that honesty. I really hope that life starts treating you better. I know my life was such a wreck until just recently and it took a lot of work to get to this point.

    I don’t comment a lot but I wanted to let you know that I do read your blog and I wish you the best even though I don’t know you personally. (you might not even read this, but yeah.)

    Best wishes,

  4. Kate
    Kate says:

    I just lost my car registration papers for about the 3rd time in 7 months, and I found out that I can renew and get copies of my registration (as well as of my license) online. So I could take care of this problem when I wanted to, I didn’t have to stand in line at some office an hour away, and best of all, I made a pdf of the registration, and I’m good until it expires. I love going green!

  5. CH
    CH says:

    I thought you were crazy when you explained away why you were staying with a man who beat you. Now all of this mess is just officially bat crazy stuff.

  6. Barry
    Barry says:

    Dear Penelope,

    I just happened across your blog last weekend and I enjoy your stories and writing so much. There is something so candid and honest, that despite all your travails, is so very endearing. Thank you for writing and I’ll continue to follow you. I hope you’re well and that the world treats you well as they should. You’re a treasure.



  7. Dave
    Dave says:

    There’s a lot you can learn from recognizing that what you describe about yourself is how many of us feel in the whole career management area. Have you ever had to deal with health insurance FSAs, HRAs, etc.? It is easy to be high functioning in some areas and frustratingly clueless in others–not being critical of you; I speak from experience. You are lucky for the kindness of strangers…most people get f-ed by authority when they let their frustration allow them to drop their guard and stop going along.

  8. Kridthplad
    Kridthplad says:

    I would call this the happiest post I’ve read of yours. I’ve read you for over a year, and back a few as well. The smile on your drivers license was just *Gold*.

    Congratulations! I’m in tears! :)

  9. Kridthplad
    Kridthplad says:

    Its too bad the bank post had to go. Could you repost it with a ficticious bank name (Federal First Trust and Security Reserve!) and perhaps a different picture? I love love love hearing the story of real life. I’m glad I got to read it before it disappeared. :)

  10. Davers6
    Davers6 says:

    That’s not a story illustrating “poor executive function”, it’s a story illustrating (once again) how completely wackadoodle you are. There are many such stories in this blog; this site could serve as a great website to illustrate basic craziness for first year psych nurses.

    ALWAYS intereswting here, never dull – but quite certifiably crazy nonetheless.

  11. fred doe
    fred doe says:

    i want to say there’s more sociopath in you then poor executive function but i will not. it would be prejudice on my part. i’m dyslexic. 50 years ago i was mildly retarded. 50 years ago the way you taught a dyslexic kid to read and spell was to hit them harder. it’s good we moved on since then. it was the navy who pointed this out to me i’m great at tests so good that my IQ and records say it shouldn’t be. i read my first book for enjoyment when i was in the navy and been reading ever since. this is not about military service. it’s just how i found my way. i also went to collage and got a degree so i guess that make me a functional retarded person? there’s many people in my family with phd’s after their name. they say i’m like the elephant ” it’s not that the elephant swims well. the miracle is that it swims at all” when i read your blog post (i will not write what i though. it would not be polite.) but i will thank you for making me look at my own prejudice. god bless the person who invented spell check. everyone should write a nice check for their favorite charity so what ever charity collects money for people like you ms. Trunk please let us know. (just kidding).

    • chris
      chris says:

      Forrest Gump, is that you?? Under a pseudonym?

      I refer you to several kindness posts by Penelope, though I don’t have the links at hand. Sociopaths are not known for kindness.

      Also, look at Mind-Blindness by Cohen. Or read the fiction work Eye Witness to see the twists and turns you can take if you are “on the spectrum”.

  12. Jason Lancaster
    Jason Lancaster says:

    This is just amazing – I’m not sure whether to laugh or cry. It’s bananas to hear your excuses about not having proper I.D. – unfathomable.

    You’re damn lucky, lady, that this worked out for you and that you’re not sitting in some prison waiting to be deported, LOL. But it goes to show that a compelling story can take you very far in life.

    • Simon York
      Simon York says:

      Who the heck are you kidding? P is native born. Perhaps you should push the clutch before you try to shift gears. It works better that way.

  13. Another Aspie
    Another Aspie says:

    As awful as it sounds, I read this blog from time to time because it makes my life feel stable, peaceful, and non-crazy in comparison.

  14. Rebecca
    Rebecca says:

    I’m married to someone with executive functioning disorder and your post completely resonates with me. It took a long time for my husband to get a diagnosis because he always seemed ADD but when he finally got a neuropsych test he didn’t classify as ADD. And ADD meds never worked for him. It was only after our daughter was diagnosed with executive functioning disorder that we figured it all out. He makes HORRIBLE decisions, is very impulsive, and on the surface doesn’t seem to understand the consequences of his actions. Good thing he’s a very smart, interesting, cute guy because otherwise I couldn’t stay married to him.

  15. me
    me says:

    Yay! Love the new look & feel of the site — it’s less garish/much easier on my eyes.

    Good job, sis !


  16. yvette
    yvette says:

    It’s hard to keep executive function going, given the complications of modern life (taxes, self-employment, health insurance, ID rules thay have gotten strict, debt, savings, investments, real estate, kids and all thier needs, etc). Sometimes I think I just can’t do it, then I realize there are people that really can’t do it – I just don’t like it (endless paperwork). So, in my family I do the bills, and the taxes, and keep the family calendar, but I harass the spouse and child to write their stuff on the calendar too. Meanwhile, I remember that life is not all about bureacracy. (I’ll probably get money back, but the taxes have been on my to-do list for a month now.) It takes a certain amount of persistance, determination, goal focus, and patience.

    • chris
      chris says:

      Yvette, you have found and spoken eloquently about the FINE LINE: there are those of us who don’t like it, but do it; and those of us who really can hardly do it.

  17. Eric Culbert
    Eric Culbert says:

    Honestly, I was angry after reading this post. I can’t imagine getting a photo ID being so hard for anyone, and if I hear this “voters being disenfranchised” crap one more time… oh geez. It’s not THAT hard to get a photo ID. All the obstacles you mentioned were from your own laziness. I give you credit for recognizing this as incompetence, but you need to take it step further to be real, and call it what it is…pure utter laziness on your part. >> “I threw away my social security card..” Seriously?? You obviously grew up on a different planet than the rest of us. This post is not funny, and very sad.

  18. Chris M.
    Chris M. says:

    Love the new layout!

    A few days ago, I was about to write to say “ok, now enough time has passed and I continue to hate the bold uppercase links and overall look and feel of the current design, so the issue is not that I’m attached to the old — the redesign simply made the blog less readable”.

    Thank you for making reading your blog a more pleasant activity. I’m now much more inclined to explore your archives, with the “screaming” uppercase links gone. Yay!

  19. Marc Roston
    Marc Roston says:

    Are you kidding? This is total success!

    What if the PETA people are right, and the goats talk to each other? Now Samuel has told all the other animals on the farm that the truck is safe. The rumors that you never come back aren’t true!

    You have much better quality, low stress aninal meat this way. All you need to do is randomly bring one back to the farm to keep the story going that you don’t die when you leave the farm!

  20. Kay Lorraine
    Kay Lorraine says:

    In truth, it is a very good picture! I disliked my picture on my latest drivers license so much that I went back about a month later and told them that I had lost it. I paid the fee to get a replacement and when I posed for the photo they told me, “No need, we keep a copy of your last photo in the system.” All that work for nothing. I still have a hideous photo on my drivers license and it won’t expire for another 4 years.

  21. kek
    kek says:

    Reading this makes me even surer I have ADHD.
    The other day at school, I had to leave English class early for a scheduled talk with my councellor (there was a problem with my class schedule). Knowing that I’m bad with time, I set an alarm to go off when I needed to leave. Not wanting to miss it, I made sure it was on full volume (you can see where this is going, I think).

    As my entire english class stopped to stare at my beeping pants, it occured to me that it would have been better had I set it to vibrate. As the entire class waited, I started vacillating between putting away my papers and reaching for my phone (eventually, at a throat clearing from my teacher, I decided stopping the beeping was more important). In that moment, I couldn’t decide which I should do first. Anyway, I walk to the appointment, only to discover that I had set the timer for when it ENDED. So I had to reschedule. On the bright side, the second time around I knew to stop the beeper first.

  22. pattycaker
    pattycaker says:

    Wow – what an eye opener! I just received my 2nd ticket for an uninspected car – ive been driving this car for almost a year this way. I just cant seem to get things in the right order – plus I knew the cost of fixing the broken stuff would be crazy n it was. The worst part is that my husband is as bad as me!

  23. Georgia
    Georgia says:

    I can totally relate to this. I move frequently because my husband is in the Air Force(btw, HUGE fan of yours except some of your ideas about how the military works and the types of people who join the military and their reasons for doing so). All of the logistics involved wreaks havoc on my low functioning executive function. We are currently living overseas and I was driving on an expried license until I lost it. I recently went on a business trip to Alabama and was able to sweet talk the rental agency into letting me pick up my car by telling them I left my license at home and I did at least have my military ID. Luckily for me, they are very pro-military in Alabama. My heart was racing though. I am also a dual citizen of Australia and my kids could also have Australian passports if I could just get myself to figure out the paperwork process. Same thing applies to finding an adopted sister who was born in Australia. I keep trying but I get overwhelmed by the bureacracy and just give up. When I can afford it, I will hire someone for this project.

    My real reason for commenting on this post is that I can’t figure out how to email you to ask you for advice I have been wanting to ask you for months. When I click on the email me link, it tries to set up Outlook on my computer and I don’t know how to do that.

    Struggling with EF is hindering me from helping my eldest son get in to college. He is a junior and the college application and financial aid process is taxing my EF. My mother is permanently joining our family this month because after 18 years of living overseas and my husband being frequently deployed, I am at my breaking point. I think I want to homeschool my younger children even though they are middle school aged. I can’t afford a nanny and my mom is unemployed, misses us, and has strong executive function so we are going to try to pool our resources and try something different.

    I am off track again. The real topic I want to talk to you about is college. If your boys were of college age, what types of schools/majors would you think were promising? How would you go about your search? Have you already run accross any inovative programs that interest you? The conventional lists of best schools bore me. I want my kids to go to schools that are plugged in to current and future trends. Such as schools that teach that climate change is real and how it will affect their future. Maybe even a community college that might teach them practical skills that will help them adapt and survive better. My oldest son is an amazing athlete and wants to play collegiate sports but it doesn’t have to be division I. He is very smart and takes AP classes but it takes him longer to do the work than some of his high-achieving friends and he has a 3.0 GPA. He is a little socially awkward but he still excels in leadership roles such as class president and JROTC Commander which has led our local military recruiter to send him a friend request on Facebook (Yikes!). He is not interested in the military but he’s not really sure what he wants to study in school. His favorite subject is science but he is most passionate about sports (football and discus). Because we will be active military for at least the next 5 years, he can go to school anywhere in the US or even overseas. We don’t know where we will be when he is in college and we wont know until the last mintue so that will not be a factor in our search. I guess I could search based on sports programs but coaches come and go and he might suffer a debilitating injury so will need a fallback. Basically, that was my long-winded way of asking would what you do in my position?

    • Barry
      Barry says:


      IMHO (okay, maybe not so humble) my advice regarding your son: let him deal with it. ALL of it. Choosing his major, college, dealing with the applications, etc. It’s his problem, not yours. The longer you wait to have him shoulder the burden of his life the longer you’ll feel overhwelmed. If he panics, so be it. Now, when he’s living at home, is a much better place for this than, say, 10 years from now when he’s on his own (or should be).

      My mom once told me “sometimes the most loving thing you can say to someone is ‘no'”. I think now is one of those times.

      My 2c,


      • Georgia
        Georgia says:

        Eeeeek! All of it? That’s a scary concept. I don’t really want to be an annoying helicopter parent. I like your point, but I don’t know if I will be able to let go completely.

        I do stay out of my kids way for the most part. They choose all of their classes and extra-curricular activities. At my son’s age I was a drop out and was pregnant with him so I am astounded by how conventionally successful and different he is from me at that age. When it comes to just letting him figure out college all by himself, I do worry though. We did tell him that there is no college fund for him and that he will want to make very wise choices when it comes to financing his education. He is a talented athlete and we are also starting to get some recruiter activity. There are a lot of NCAA rules of behavior that could get him in trouble if he violates them. I feel like he needs a little help navigating all of this especially because high school sucks up almost every minute of his time. What I am really looking for are some objective sources of information on innovative schools or some creative search wizards that I could pass on to him so he can do some of his own hunting. I was hoping Brazen Careerist might have something but all of the advice is post-college.

        • Barry
          Barry says:

          Hi Georgia, thanks for writing back. Now that I’ve had a few hours to ruminate and also read your response, I want to soften me feedback somewhat. What do I know about your specific situation? Answer: nothing. So take my comments with some grains of salt.

          Buiuuut, I do want to say that my reaction was triggered by the tone of your original message, which I interpreted to mean that you are taking on much of the responsibility of your son’s college plans and so forth. I just think that as a parent (I have two sons in their twenties myself) it’s healthy to let go, at least gradually. I’m not judging you or accusing you of helicoptering or anything. Just consider this. My best to you and yours. Barry

  24. chris
    chris says:

    Overwhelmed is the operative word, I think. Georgia and Penelope have used it.

    At another time in history, someone wrote a musical: Stop the World, I Want to Get Off.
    But things in our culture seem to hurtle on, every year, every job pushing us harder to change and to learn newer, faster ways.

    I find that this just ruffles my sense of peace. Makes me want to yank on the reins, stomp on the brakes to slow down. Makes me want to meditate.

    Add onto this cultural hurtling that we don’t value sleep and don’t restore ourselves with sleep like we should.
    (Also, more importance given to “restorative food” and good hydration–plain old water.)
    We may not have control over what the culture dictates–rapidly changing situations and demands–but we DO have control over sleeping, eating and drinking–being kind to ourselves in these basic ways.

    I am tremendously sleep-deprived at the moment and I am making mistakes and failing to follow up on things. AND feeling (more) overwhelmed.

    I think there is a time to take a step back and let the world turn without our being so assertive and proactive. I KNOW it is time for me to be quiet, restore myself. I am putting everything on a back burner today and taking deep breaths, drinking water, eating well, remembering my vitamins . . .
    I know this will improve my Executive Function . . .

  25. Heather Wilson
    Heather Wilson says:

    Holy hell… my life according to you. Actually on the up-swing now — court dates on Tuesday and beyond to clear up 5 (5!) unpaid Driving While License Revoked ticket, all of which stem from 1 unpaid expired tags ticket.

    This here is one consoling post. Any further motivating blog/info for curing “poor executive function?”

  26. Lisa M
    Lisa M says:

    I was doing random searches and came across this blog.. My executive function issues are such that I am barely holding things together right now, and it is not something that is recognized as an issue by most people. I have also been diagnosed with high functioning autism – something else that is not recognized by others since I am intelligent and can act just fine in public – since I am an artist, people find me quirky or eccentric or flighty, and don’t realize the depth of the situation.
    I know about my executive function issues, and I am so glad you are blogging about it – it is so huge just to have that “aha!” moment and know why things are so wrong.. But now what? I dont suppose you have covered step 2 somewhere…?

  27. mysticaltyger
    mysticaltyger says:

    I think there might be a link between childhood sexual abuse and poor executive function. I know several people who were sexually abused as children and they exhibit some of the same kinds of limitations as Penelope, although not quite as extreme.

  28. Anne
    Anne says:

    Hilarious. Thank you for making someone with a rather serious problem with Executive Function feel not so alone and even a little bit superior.

    • Anne
      Anne says:

      (not that I’m ANY BETTER AT ALL… I just never changed my name. Well once. Anyway, I’d probably be in jail if I hadn’t lived in a big city with no need for a driver’s license.) In awe of your tone. Thank you!

  29. Damian
    Damian says:

    Thank you for continuing to inspire, and educate me (and I am sure others) while I laugh with you, at myself and yes at you (until I see the mirror at myself).

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