Executive Dysfunctions in Autism Spectrum Disorders

  • Shameem FatimaEmail author


The chapter focuses on executive dysfunctions in neurodevelopmental disorder of autism spectrum disorder. Firstly, the presenting symptoms and prevalence rate of autism spectrum disorder have been described. Then, three cognitive theories including theory of mind deficits, weak central coherence, and executive dysfunctions theory have been discussed in relation to presenting symptoms of the autism. Further, specific executive dysfunctions in individuals with autism have been analyzed. The chapter discusses that individuals with autism spectrum disorder show consistent impairment on tasks tapping planning, cognitive flexibility, and working memory related to spatial domain. However, findings are inconsistent regarding inhibition deficits. It is recommended that more detailed assessment of executive dysfunctions, using a wide range of executive functioning tasks, must be conducted. Assessment should include ecologically valid executive functioning measures along with laboratory measures of executive functions, natural observation of the behavior, and parent’s and teachers’ reports. Additionally, longitudinal studies are recommended to identify the executive dysfunction trajectory in autistic individuals. A clearer understanding of executive dysfunctions in autistic individuals will help in improving clinical techniques and trainings to ameliorate the undesirable consequences of executive dysfunctions on daily activities of these individuals.


Autism Spectrum Disorder Planning Cognitive flexibility Spatial working memory 


  1. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: USA.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Barendse, E. M., Hendriks, M. P., Jansen, J. F., Backes, W. H., Hofman, P. A., Thoonen, G., … Aldenkamp, A. P. (2013). Working memory deficits in high-functioning adolescents with autism spectrum disorders: Neuropsychological and neuroimaging correlates. Journal of Neurodevelopmental Disorders, 5(1), 14.
  3. Brian, J. A., Tipper, S. P., Weaver, B., & Bryson, S. E. (2003). Inhibitory mechanisms in autism spectrum disorders: Typical selective inhibition of location versus facilitated perceptual processing. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines, 44(4), 552–560.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Castelli, F., Frith, C., Happé, F., & Frith, U. (2002). Autism, Asperger syndrome and brain mechanisms for the attribution of mental states to animated shapes. Brain, 125, 1839–1849.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Channon, S., Charman, T., Heap, J., Crawford, S., & Rios, P. (2001). Real-life-type problem-solving in Asperger’s syndrome. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 31(5), 461–469.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Chugani, D. C. (1998). A critical period of brain development: Studies of cerebral glucose utilization with PET. Preventative Medicine, 27, 184–188.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Chugani, D. C., Muzik, O., Rothermel, R., Behen, M., Chakraborty, P., Mangner, T., … Chugani, H. T. (1997). Altered serotonin synthesis in the dentatothalamocortical pathway in autistic boys. Annals of Neurology, 42(4), 666–669.Google Scholar
  8. Courchesne, E., Townsend, J., Akshoomoff, N. A., Saitoh, O., Yeung-Courchesne R., Lincoln, A. J., … Lau, L. (1994). Impairment in shifting attention in autistic and cerebellar patients. Behavioral Neuroscience, 108(5), 848–65.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Dawson, G., Meltzoff, A. N., Osterling, J., & Rinaldi, J. (1998). Neuropsychological correlates of early symptoms of autism. Child Development, 69, 1276–1285.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Dawson, G., Webb, S., Schellenberg, G. D., Dager, S., Friedman, S., Aylward, E., et al. (2002). Defining the broader phenotype of autism: Genetic, brain, and behavioral perspectives. Development and Psychopathology, 14, 581–611.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Dennis, M., Agostino, A., Roncadin, C., & Levin, H. (2009). Theory of mind depends on domain-general executive functions of working memory and cognitive inhibition in children with traumatic brain injury. Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology, 31(7), 835–847. Scholar
  12. Diamond, A., Prevor, M. B., Callender, G., & Druin, D. P. (1997). Prefrontal cortex cognitive deficits in children treated early and continuously for PKU. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 62, 1–208.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Di Martino, A., Ross, K., Uddin, L. Q., Sklar, A. B., Castellanos, F. X., & Milham, M. P. (2009). Functional brain correlates of social and nonsocial processes in autism spectrum disorders: An activation likelihood estimation meta-analysis. Biological Psychiatry, 65(1), 63–74. Scholar
  14. Fombonne, E. (2009). Epidemiology of pervasive developmental disorders. Pediatric Research, 65(6), 591–598.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Frith, U. (2003a). Autism: Explaining the Enigma (2nd ed.). Blackwell.Google Scholar
  16. Frith, C. D. (2003b). What do imaging studies tell us about the neural basis of autism? In M. Rutter (Ed.), Autism: Neural basis and treatment possibilities. London: Wiley.Google Scholar
  17. Gilotty, L., Kenworthy, L., Sirian, L., Black, D. O., & Wagncer, A. E. (2002). Adaptive skills and executive function in autism spectrum disorders. Child Neuropsychology, 8(4), 241–248.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Gray, K. M., Keating, C. M., Taffe, J. R., Brereton, A. V., Einfeld, S. L., Reardon, T. C., et al. (2014). Adult outcomes in autism: Community inclusion and living skills. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 44, 3006–3015.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Griffith, E. M., Pennington, B. F., Wehner, E. A., & Rogers, S. J. (1999). Executive functions in young children with autism. Child Development, 70, 817–832.
  20. Happé, F., Ehlers, S., Fletcher, P., Frith, U., Johansson, M., Gillberg, C., … Frith, C. (1996). ‘Theory of mind’ in the brain. Evidence from a PET scan study of Asperger syndrome. Neuroreport, 8, 197–201.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Happé, F., Ronald, A., & Plomin, R. (2006). Time to give up on a single explanation for autism. Nature Neuroscience, 9(10), 1218–1220. Scholar
  22. Hill, E. L. (2004). Executive dysfunction in autism. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 8(1), 26–32.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Hughes, C., & Leekam, S. (2004). What are the links between theory of mind and social relations? Review, reflections and new directions for studies of typical and atypical development. Social Development, 13, 590–619. Scholar
  24. Hughes, C., Russell, J., & Robbins, T. W. (1994). Evidence for executive dysfunction in autism. Neuropsychologia, 32, 477–492.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Joseph, R. M., & Tager–Flusberg, H. (2004).The relationship of theory of mind and executive functions to symptom type and severity in children with autism. Development and Psychopathology, 16(1), 137–155.
  26. Just, M. A., Cherkassky, V. L., Keller, T. A., Kana, R. K., & Minshew, N. J. (2007). Functional and anatomical cortical underconnectivity in autism: Evidence from an FMRI study of an executive function task and corpus callosum morphometry. Cereberal Cortex, 17(4), 951–961.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Kemper, K. L., & Bauman, M. L. (1998). Neuropathology of infantile autism. Journal of Neuropathology and Experimental Neurology, 57(7), 645–652. Scholar
  28. Kenworthy, L., Anthony, L. G., Naiman, D. Q., Cannon, L., Wills, M. C., Luong-Tran, C., … Wallace, G. L. (2014). Randomized controlled effectiveness trial of executive function invention for children on the autism spectrum. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Sciences, 55(4), 374–383. Scholar
  29. Kenworthy, L., Black, D. O., Harrison, B., Della Rosa, A., & Wallace, G. L. (2009). Are executive control functions related to autism symptoms in high-functioning children? Child Neuropsychology, 15(5), 425–440. Scholar
  30. Kerns, C. M., Roux, A. M., Connell, J. E., & Shattuck, P. T. (2016). Adapting cognitive behavioral techniques to address anxiety and depression in cognitively able emerging adults on the autism spectrum. Cognitive Behavior Practices, 23(3), 329–340. Scholar
  31. Kimhi, Y. (2014). Theory of mind abilities and deficits in autism spectrum disorders. Top Language Disorders, 34(4), 329–343.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Landa, R. J., & Goldberg, M. C. (2005). Language, social, and executive functions in high functioning autism: A continuum of performance. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 35(5), 557–573. Scholar
  33. Leekam, S. R., López, B., & Moore, C. (2000). Attention and joint attention in preschool children with autism. Developmental Psychology, 36(2), 261–273.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Lopez, B. R., Lincoln, A. J., Ozonoff, S., & Lai, Z. (2005). Examining the relationship between executive functions and restricted, repetitive symptoms of autistic disorder. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 35(4), 445–460.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Luna, B., Minshew, N. J., Garver, K. E., Lazar, N. A., Thulborn, K. R., Eddy, W. F., et al. (2002). Neocortical system abnormalities in autism. An fMRI study of spatial working memory. Neurology, 59, 834–840.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Matson, J. L., & Shoemaker, M. (2009). Intellectual disability and its relationship to autism spectrum disorders. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 30(6), 1107–1114.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. McEvoy, R. E., Rogers, S. J., & Pennington, B. F. (1993). Executive function and social communication deficits in young autistic children. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines, 34, 563–578.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. McGonigle-Chalmers, M., Bodner, K., Fox-Pitt, A., & Nicholson, L. (2008). Size sequencing as a window on executive control in children with autism and Asperger’s syndrome. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 38, 1382–1390. Scholar
  39. McGuinness, P. S., Cook, B. E., Bush, H., Lind, H., Vuijk, P. J., Doyle, A. E., & Braaten, E. B. (2017). Children with autism spectrum disorder and comorbid specific learning disorder demonstrate cognitive weakness compared to autism spectrum disorder alone. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 56(10suppl.), S231.Google Scholar
  40. Mody, M., & Belliveau, J. W. (2013). Speech and language impairments in autism: Insights from behavior and neuroimaging. New American Journal of Medical Sciences (Boston), 5(3), 157–161.Google Scholar
  41. Mottron, L., Peretz, I., & Ménard, E. (2000). Local and global processing of music in high-functioning persons with autism: Beyond central coherence? Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines, 41(8), 1057–1065.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Noens, I. L. J., & van Berckelaer-Onnes, I. A. (2008). The central coherence account of autism revisited: Evidence from the ComFor study. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorder, 2(2), 209–222. Scholar
  43. Newschaffer, C. G., Croen, L. A., Daniels, J., Giarelli, E., Grether, J. K., Levy, S. E., … Windham, G. C. (2007). The epidemiology of autism spectrum disorders. Annual Review of Public Health, 28, 235–258. Scholar
  44. Noterdaeme, M., Mildenberger, K., Minow, F., & Amorosa, H. (2002). Evaluation of neuromotor deficits in children with autism and children with a specific speech and language disorder. European Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 11(5), 219–225.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. O’Hearn, K., Asato, M., Ordaz, S., & Luna, B. (2008). Neurodevelopment and executive function in autism. Development and Psychopathology, 20(4), 1103–1132. Scholar
  46. Ohnishi, T., Matsuda, H., Hashimoto, T., Kunihiro, T., Nishikawa, M., Uema, T., et al. (2000). Abnormal regional cerebral blood flow in childhood autism. Brain, 123, 1838–1844.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Osterling, J., & Dawson, G. (1994). Early recognition of children with autism: A study of first birthday home videotapes. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 24, 247–257.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Ozonoff, S. (1995a). Executive functions in autism. In E. Schopler & G. Mesibov (Eds.), Learning and cognition in autism (pp. 199–219). New York: Plenum Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Ozonoff, S. (1995b). Reliability and validity of the Wisconsin card sorting test in studies of autism. Neuropsychology, 9, 491–500.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Ozonoff, S., & Jensen, J. (1999). Brief report: Specific executive function profiles in three neurodevelopmental disorders. Journals of Autism and Developmental Disorders., 29, 171–177.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Ozonoff, S., & McEvoy, R. E. (1994). A longitudinal study of executive function and theory of mind development in autism. Development and Psychopathology, 6, 415–431.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Reiersen, A. M., & Todd, R. D. (2008). Co-occurrence of ADHD and autism spectrum disorders: Phenomenology and treatment. Expert Review Neurotherapy, 8(4), 657–669.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Salmond, C. H., de Haan, M., Friston, K. J., Gadian, D. G., & Vargha-Khadem, F. (2003). Investigating individual differences in brain abnormalities in autism. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B: Biological Sciences, 358(1430), 405–413. Scholar
  54. Sergeant, J. A., Geurts, H., & Oosterlaan, J. (2002). How specific is a deficit of executive functioning for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder? Behavioral Brain Research, 130, 3–28.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. South, M., Ozonoff, S., & McMahon, W. M. (2007). The relationship between executive functioning, central coherence, and repetitive behaviors in the high-functioning autism spectrum. Autism, 11, 437–451.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Steele, S. D., Minshew, N. J., Luna, B., & Sweeney, J. A. (2007). Spatial working memory deficits in autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorder, 37(4), 605–612. Scholar
  57. Szatmari, P., Bryson, S., Duku, E., Vaccarella, L., Zwaigenbaum, L., Bennett, T., et al. (2009). Similar developmental trajectories in autism and Asperger syndrome: From early childhood to adolescence. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines, 50(12), 1459–1467.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Van Steensel, F. J., Bögels, S. M., & Perrin, S. (2011). Anxiety disorders in children and adolescents with autistic spectrum disorders: A meta-analysis. Clinical Child and Family Psychological Review, 14(3), 302–317.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Williams, D. L., Goldstein, G., Carpenter, P. A., & Minshew, N. J. (2005). Verbal and spatial working memory in autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorder, 35(6), 747–756. Scholar
  60. Williams, D. L., Goldstein, G., & Minshew, N. J. (2006). The profile of memory function in children with autism. Neuropsychology, 20, 21–29.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Wodka, E. L., Mahone, E. M., Blankner, J. G., Larson, J. C., Fotedar, S., Denckla, M. B., et al. (2007). Evidence that response inhibition is a primary deficit in ADHD. Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology, 29(4), 345–356. Scholar
  62. Zilbovicius, M., Garreau, B., Samson, Y., Remy, P., Barthélémy, C., Syrota, A., et al. (1995). Delayed maturation of the frontal cortex in childhood autism. The American Journal of Psychiatry, 152(2), 248–252. Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.COMSATS University IslamabadLahorePakistan

Personalised recommendations