The Executive Dysfunction Theory on Autism: Information for Parents and Educators

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What is Executive Dysfunction?

In order to understand the executive dysfunction theory on autism, you first need to know the definition of “executive function.” This term encompasses several functions of the brain, including working memory, the ability to plan ahead, and both inhibition and impulse control. All of these functions share the quality of being able to disconnect from the outer world in order to monitor or examine a given situation. They are all controlled by the frontal brain structures, or more specifically, the prefrontal cortex. Therefore, damage to the prefrontal cortex can lead to executive dysfunction, in which the person is unable to effectively use these executive functions.

History of the Theory

The executive function theory on autism stems from the fact that people with autism seem to share many of the same characteristics as those who have damaged frontal brain structures. In 1978, Damasio and Maurer linked these two problems - damaged frontal lobes and autism - showing that they shared these characteristics. Over the years since then, study after study found evidence that the two are linked in some way, and that people with autism spectrum disorder were much more likely to have impaired executive function than those with other disabilities or no disabilities at all. Some studies, however, found no link in younger children.

At the same time, researchers are still puzzled about how the two are linked. Questions about the relationship between the two factors abound. Could impaired executive function cause autism? Does autism cause impaired executive function? Or are the two caused by some other, unrelated factor? At this point in time, researchers can only guess at the answers to these questions, although research is underway to try to determine just how these two factors are related.

What This Means for Parents and Teachers

Although parents and teachers - and even researchers - cannot make any definitive changes to their instructional routines based on the executive dysfunction theory on autism, they can check to see whether the child or children under their care share these characteristics. For example, they might realize that a child has difficulty planning for future situations effectively, or that a child feels no inhibition toward doing certain behaviors in public which others would never dream of. (This can lead to problems in the workplace in the future.) Understand that these characteristics are part of the disorder, rather than a rebellion, can help parents and teacher react correctly. They can give children the tools that they will need to develop these skills, and work with any executive dysfunction that they may uncover. As researchers understand more about the impact of the executive dysfunction theory on autism, they hope to be able to better understand the way that autism works.


Handbook of Clinical Psychology, by Cecil R. Reynolds and Elaine Fletcher-Janzen

This post is part of the series: Autism Research for Parents

Are you interested in the dynamics of how autism works? This series contains several articles that discuss what researchers have discovered or theorized about autism, especially those issues relevant to parents and caregivers.

  1. Vaccines and Autism: Are They Linked?
  2. Is There An Autism Crisis?
  3. What is the Executive Dysfunction Theory on Autism?
  4. Can Breech Births Cause Autism Spectrum Disorders?
  5. Brilliant Minds: What is an Autistic Savant?