Executive Functioning

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Executive Functioning

Deficits in executive functioning, or the ability to do voluntary planned behavior or complex tasks, is broadly seen in both adults and children with ASD. Many researchers believe that executive dysfunction is caused by brain system abnormalities affecting complex information processing. Executive Functioning is thought to have Working Memory and Response Inhibition components. Furthermore, some believe that the deficit in executive functioning is the main reason behind the core deficits in ASD.1

Many believe that this may be linked to Gray Matter and White Matter differences seen in those with autism. Postmortem studies show a decreased gray matter to white matter ratio when compared to control subjects. Specific areas which had smaller ratios were lobules VI-VII which are mostly made up of gray matter. However, there were no differences once IQ was controlled for.

Deficits in executive functioning have been shown to persist for those with autism on a group level in longitudinal studies, but not for every individual.2,3,4

Executive Function and Theory of Mind

Executive functioning, along with its theorized components of working memory and response inhibition, have been shown to correlate with performance on Theory of Mind tasks.5,6 Furthermore, success on tasks in response inhibition predicted preschoolers' later success on false-belief tasks.The exact relationship that exists between executive functioning and theory of mind is unknown, though there is a strong link between the two. Some propose executive functioning abilities are underlie theory of mind abilities, while others propose the opposite. Some believe that both are related because of neuroanatomic proximity.6

The robust relationship between individual task performance for theory of mind and executive functioning arise because false-belief tasks also use executive functioning, and vice versa.
Either theory of mind, or executive functioning was critical in the development of the other construct.
A difference construct, such as central coherence, affects the development of theory of mind and executive functioning.

One longitudinal study suggested that variations in performance on executive functioning tasks predicted theory of mind performance 3 years later. Central Coherence early performance also predicted later theory of mind performance, but central coherence scores were unrelated to later executive functioning scores and vice versa, suggesting that the two constructs are independent. Low scores on visuospatial central coherence tasks(which indicates strong central coherence) predicted high scores in theory of mind task performance. Executive functioning then could possibly directly affect theory of mind development. Alternatively, better executive functioning skills could lead to more beneficial social interactions which could in turn better theory of mind. 5

Cognitive Tasks that assess Executive Functioning


1. O'Hearn K et. al. Neurodevelopment and executive function in autism.Dev Psychopathol. 2008 Fall;20(4):1103-32. PMID 18838033

2. Ozonoff, et. al. A longitudinal study of executive function and theory of mind development in autism. Development and Psychopathology, 6, 415–431. 1994

3. Griffith EM et. al. Executive functions in young children with autism.Child Dev. 1999 Jul-Aug;70(4):817-32. PMID 10446722

4. Pellicano E. The development of core cognitive skills in autism: a 3-year prospective study.Child Dev. 2010 Sep-Oct;81(5):1400-16. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8624.2010.01481.x. PMID 20840230

5. Pellicano E. Individual differences in executive function and central coherence predict developmental changes in theory of mind in autism.Dev Psychol. 2010 Mar;46(2):530-44. PMID 20210511

6. Pellicano E. Links between theory of mind and executive function in young children with autism: clues to developmental primacy.Dev Psychol. 2007 Jul;43(4):974-90. PMID 17605529