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EF in ASD Young Adults


Article: Executive Functioning in Young Adults with ASD. In, Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disorders, 32(1), 2017.

A fantastic article/research study. I want to quote a few lines here from the Introduction as they summarize a couple complex topics well.

What is EF?

"The term executive function (EF)...[is]...a cognitive system responsible for intentionality and the formulation of thoughts and actions, as well as the identification and application of goal-appropriate cognitive routines and evaluation of outcomes." (p31).

What Composes EF?

"...EFs are described as a group of cognitive abilities that include response inhibition, sequencing of behaviors, cognitive flexibility, self-regulation of behaviors, planning and organization of behavior." (p31)

How does one use/develop EF?

"EFs necessitate flexibility in cognition and behavior, requiring abilities to attend to currently relevant information, hold and manipulation information, switch between cognitive strategies and behavioral responses, and inhibit inappropriate behaviors." (p31)

This study looked at 3 distinct "skills" within EF they felt were prevalent issues in the literature that addressed ASD EF deficits:

Inhibition (i.e., response inhibition): prevention of a behavioral response in the presence of a stimulus (e.g., not calling out in class, focus on relevant vs. irrelevant (but possibly more interesting) information, etc.).

Planning: "...a complex, dynamic operaciton that requires fluid monitoring, re-evaluating, and updating and involves an understanding of ongoing contextual changes, an ability to look ahead and predict, to make choices, and then to implement the plan and revise it accordingly." (p32) This is what most people think of "planning", but this says it with more words.

Generativity: I am not sure what they mean by this, as they provide no definition (perhaps I should have paid more attention in grad school), but I think they are referring to the ability to produce novel responses to situations that favor creativity, like pretend play and conversation.

So they did an interesting thing in this study. First, they tested a bunch of ASD young adults on EF skills. Next, they compared these results to those from a "matched sample" of so-called Neurotypicals. What they found was that on all measures of EF ability, the ASD group performed in the "normal" range. As a group, they ASD individuals evidenced no EF deficits. Very interesting.

They then compared the ASD group to the matched group and found significant differences in a couple areas. Even though the ASD group was "normal", by comparison, they were less normal than the matched group on skills such as Inhibition and Visual Fluency (I think this is Generativity based on visual stimuli), meaning that the matched group was "more normal" or performed significantly better in this study. The ASD group was statistically comparable to the matched group on the skill of Planning and verbal Generativity (no surprise that ASD individuals are good with words).

The finding, however, that deserves its own paragraph is that the variability within the ASD group was very high. This is the "if you've seen on person with ASD, you've seen one person with ASD" finding.

The results, in my opinion speak for themselves, but I will comment that I have been spending more time looking at Inhibition in therapy with my clients. It's amazing how many other things make sense in interaction and performance when you consider that individuals with ASD have a deficit in the skill of Inhibition.


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