Executive function, language, and ASD (Ellis Weismer et al., 2018)

posted on 16.10.2019 by Susan Ellis Weismer, Margarita Kaushanskaya, Caroline Larson, Janine Mathée, Daniel Bolt
Purpose: This article reviews research on executive function (EF) skills in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and the relation between EF and language abilities. The current study assessed EF using nonverbal tasks of inhibition, shifting, and updating of working memory (WM) in school-age children with ASD. It also evaluated the association between children’s receptive and expressive language abilities and EF performance.
Method: In this study, we sought to address variables that have contributed to inconsistencies in this area of research—including task issues, group comparisons, and participant heterogeneity. EF abilities in children with ASD (n = 48) were compared to typically developing controls (n = 71) matched on age, as well as when statistically controlling for group differences in nonverbal cognition, socioeconomic status, and social communication abilities. Six nonverbal EF tasks were administered—2 each to evaluate inhibition, shifting, and WM. Language abilities were assessed via a standardized language measure. Language–EF associations were examined for the ASD group as a whole and subdivided by language status.
Results: Children with ASD exhibited significant deficits in all components of EF compared to age-mates and showed particular difficulty with shifting after accounting for group differences in nonverbal cognition. Controlling for social communication—a core deficit in ASD—eliminated group differences in EF performance. A modest association was observed between language (especially comprehension) and EF skills, with some evidence of different patterns between children on the autism spectrum with and without language impairment.
Conclusions: There is a need for future research to examine the direction of influence between EF and language. It would be beneficial for EF interventions with children with ASD to consider language outcomes and, conversely, to examine whether specific language training facilitates aspects of executive control in children on the autism spectrum.

Publisher Note: This article is part of the Research Forum: Advances in Autism Research: From Learning Mechanisms to Novel Interventions.

Ellis Weismer, S., Kaushanskaya, M., Larson, C., Mathée, L., & Bolt, D. (2018). Executive function skills in school-age children with autism spectrum disorder: Association with language abilities. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 61(11), 2641–2658. https://doi.org/10.1044/2018_JSLHR-L-RSAUT-18-0026


This article stems from the 2017 Research Symposium at ASHA Convention, which was supported by the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders of the National Institutes of Health under Award R13DC003383. Research reported in this publication was also supported by Award R01 DC011750 (Ellis Weismer & Kaushanskaya, MPIs), as well as by a core grant to the Waisman Center from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (U54 HD090256).