Executive Dysfunction Theory of ASD

Executive Dysfunction Theory of ASD

“Executive Function” is an umbrella term to describe a number of different abilities, including planning, controlling impulses, inhibiting highly practiced actions when they are not appropriate, and shifting to different thoughts or actions according to the situation. It is thought that some aspects of executive function may be impaired in Autism Spectrum Disorders. This is known as the “Executive Dysfunction” theory of ASD.
The Executive Dysfunction theory could help explain why switching from an established routine can be particularly difficult for people with ASD. This is because a change in routine might involve skills like inhibiting actions which people are used to performing, and planning and acting out a new set of actions. Because of the commonalities between ASD and CdLS, it could be that the Executive Dysfunction theory is helpful in understanding aspects of CdLS, too.


Imagine that a fictional person, Arlene, has in recent years always been picked up by a particular minibus driver, Bill, at 8.05am. Bill always knocks on the door and says “Good morning Arlene” when Arlene opens it. Arlene replies “Good morning Bill”, and gets into the front of the minibus. One morning Bill is unwell and a different driver, Charlie, knocks on the door at 8.05am. When Arlene opens it, he says “hello, I’m Charlie” and offers his hand for Arlene to shake. When Arlene opens the door, she must suppress her previously learnt action of saying “Good morning Bill”. She must also generate a new appropriate action (e.g., taking his hand, and saying “Hello Charlie”). Now imagine that Charlie opens the back door to the minibus rather than the front. Arlene must inhibit her usual action of getting in the front door, and potentially plan and carry out a whole series of other actions (either to explain the problem to Charlie or to get to a new seat on the minibus).To a person who has difficulties with Executive Function, all these things could be extremely difficult.

Chris Oliver

By Dr Alice Welham, Dr Jo Moss and Professor Chris Oliver
Cerebra Centre for Neurodevelopmental Disorders, University of Birmingham

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Last modified by Gerritjan Koekkoek on 2021/05/23 12:41
Created by Gerritjan Koekkoek on 2021/05/23 12:41

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