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Understanding Executive Dysfunction in Autism—5 Areas of Brain-Functioning that are Affected

executive dysfunction

There are five main areas that are affected by deficits with executive functioning, the higher-order processing that our brain uses to plan and execute complex tasks. These areas are in inhibitory control, non-working verbal memory, verbal working memory, emotional control, and planning and problem solving. Autistic individuals are affected to one degree or another by deficits in executive functioning. The degree of deficit or disability in these areas varies from person to person. Living with executive processing issues, or executive dysfunction can be challenging; however, having an understanding of what areas can be affected can help those with autism to succeed.

1. Inhibitory Control

Inhibitory control; your ability to inhabit behaviors—to be able to self-regulate and shift from one activity to another is often affected. This makes it difficult for those with autism and executive functioning issues to be able to shift from one activity smoothly to the next. Often the transition is seen as an unwelcome interruption when you are focused on the task at hand, and it takes a longer time than usual to switch your mindset and your activities to accomplish something new.

2. Non-Working Verbal Memory

We use visual imagery throughout our days, it is the function responsible for goal sequencing; what is responsible for keeping goals in our minds and working steadily toward them. When your non-working visual memory is affected, it affects both our hindsight, foresight, and our sense of time. Deficits in non-working verbal memory can contribute to not learning from past mistakes, a difficulty anticipating problems, and poor time management.

3. Verbal Working Memory

Your verbal working memory is what you are using when you talk to yourself (in your mind) throughout the day, when you talk yourself through your tasks. The non-verbal voice you keep in your head allows you to talk your way through sequences in events, or keeps you reminded of what the next step in your task or goal is. It is the voice you use to give yourself instructions, or to question yourself. When your verbal working memory is affected it is difficult to remember what it is you intended to do, and to ask yourself valuable questions in order to sequence your tasks to work towards goals.

4. Emotional Control

When your emotional control is inhibited, it makes it difficult to moderate and control your emotions. This affects your self-control, and when in deficit makes it difficult to not get distracted by everything that grabs your emotional attention—an email, a phone call, a thought about a conversation that took place earlier in the day. The lack of regulation of emotional control can contribute to meltdowns that are common in autism spectrum disorders.

5. Planning and Problem Solving

Those who deal with executive dysfunction find themselves with a deficit in the ability to plan and problem solve. It is an inability to manipulate information in the mind to overcome obstacles. When executive functioning is affected, the individual will have a hard time keeping many bits of information in their minds simultaneously. They tend to be extremely detailed oriented, but can easily lose sight of the task at hand—having difficulty keeping their eye on the ball. This is compounded by a lack of, or weak central coherence.

Autism is a highly complex disorder, which can affect many aspects of life—executive functioning is just one of those aspects. Not everyone with autism will have deficits in all five areas of function; however, they are usually affected to some degree. These deficits can appear to come and go, or present themselves differently at different times in a person’s life.


Jeannie Davide-Rivera

Jeannie is an award-winning author, the Answers.com Autism Category Expert, contributes to Autism Parenting Magazine, and the Thinking Person's Guide to Autism. She lives in New York with her husband and four sons, on the autism spectrum.

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