Executive Function Issues

Date Last Revised: December 5, 2013

Date Published: April 2, 2007

Executive function refers to the ability to coordinate and apply one’s own mental capacity. It is what permits us to initiate goal-directed action, decide not to take inappropriate action, screen out unwanted sensory stimuli, think abstractly, and choose alternate action as roadblocks arise. It is not intelligence, per se, but Mission Control.

Many people with ASDs appear to have impaired executive function,1 especially as regards planning, organization, and mental flexibility.2,3  Some researchers believe that it is this problem that leads to the need for sameness displayed by so many with ASDs.4 Also, the gap between the students with autism and their peers widens in executive functioning during the teen years.5

In practical terms, problems with executive function translate into issues with organization and flexibility. Both children and adults with an ASD often find it difficult to cope with the demands of work or school in terms of preparedness, knowing what is due when, and keeping track of where needed materials or assignments are. Just getting ready in the morning, or getting to school or work with required items in hand, can be a challenge. Parents, teachers, employers, and other mentors of those with an ASD often find their help is very much needed in this area.


  1. Ozonoff, S., South, M., & Provencal, S. (2005). Executive function. In F. Volkmar et al. (Eds.), Handbook of Autism and Pervasive Developmental Disorders (pp. 606-627). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
  2. Kenworthy, L.E., Black, D.O., Wallace, G.L., Ahluvalia, T., Wagner, A.E., & Sirian, L.M. (2005). Disorganization: The forgotten executive dysfunction in high-functioning autism (HFA) spectrum disorders. Developmental Neuropsychology, 28(3), 809-827.  Abstract
  3. Hill, E.L. (2004). Executive dysfunction in autism. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 8(1), 26-32.  Abstract
  4. Militerni, R., Bravaccio, C., Falco, C., Fico, C., & Palermo, M.T. (2002). Repetitive behaviors in autistic disorder. European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 11, 210-218. (page 216).  Abstract
  5. Rosenthal, M., Wallace, G.L., Lawson, R., Wills, M.C., Dixon, E., Yerys, B.E. & Kenworthy, L. (2013) Impairments in real-world executive function increase from childhood to adolescence in autism spectrum disorders. Neuropsychology. 2013 Jan;27(1):13-8. View abstract
These archived articles were originally published as part of the Interactive Autism Network (IAN) research project. 
The project is closed and no longer accepting participants.

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