Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Executive Functioning and Autistic Spectrum Disorders

How can you solve the problems you’re having at work or in your relationships? One solution might be to consider the concept of executive functioning.
Executive functioning is a term that comes up frequently in discussions of the characteristics of autism, Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) and Asperger’s Syndrome. In general, many individuals with an ASD struggle with specific deficits in executive functioning as well. I don’t want to go into the details of measurement of executive functions or review the research on correlations between autism or Asperger’s and executive functioning in this posting, but I do want to introduce the basics.
A good definition of “executive function” can be found in Simon Baron-Cohen’s The Essential Difference (Basic Books, 2003, p. 176). Baron-Cohen defines executive function as “shorthand for the control centers of the brain that allow not just planning but also attention-switching and the inhibition of impulsive action.”
Tony Attwood discusses executive functioning in The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2007, p. 234) and lists “organizational and planning abilities, working memory, inhibition and impulse control, self reflection and self-monitoring, time management and prioritizing, understanding complex or abstract concepts, using new strategies.” Other researchers may classify executive functions differently, but the general concept is the same.
The research on the correlation of executive functioning deficits and autism or Asperger’s can get very complex, due to the difference of ability levels along the autism spectrum, as well as the many measures of specific types of executive functions. It’s not surprising that different studies measuring executive function in individuals with autism get different results. What is clear is that individuals, both those with autism and neurotypicals, can vary in their abilities in each of the different executive functions.
What’s probably of more immediate value to those with ASDs, is to individually consider the specific executive functions as Attwood lists them. For individuals who are struggling professionally or in relationships, this can be helpful as a first step in problem solving.
Check back on this blog over the next few weeks. Further posts will give some examples and specific suggestions for managing problems with executive functioning.

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