Understanding autism
Understanding autism

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

2.1 Executive function

Some experimental tests suggest that the profile just described reflects problems with executive function (Demetriou et al., 2017). This means the mental capacity to organise thoughts and actions to meet goals, for instance completing a task, shifting flexibly from one task to another, or thinking up new ideas for things to do. Executive function difficulties are not unique to autism – for instance, they occur in ADHD.One test of executive function in which children and adults with autism may have difficulty is the Tower of Hanoi puzzle, illustrated below.

Tower of Hanoi

The puzzle consists of three pegs, A, B and C, and a set of rings that vary in size. At the start of the test, the rings are arranged in order of size on peg A (see Figure 2). The aim is to move all the rings, one at a time and in as few moves as possible, to peg C, with the constraint that a larger ring can never be placed on top of a smaller ring. To succeed at this task the participant must work out an overall strategy or plan for transferring the rings – the secret is in the way all three pegs, including peg B, are used as ‘staging posts’.

A 'before and after' type image of the Tower of Hanoi puzzle.
Figure 3 The Tower of Hanoi puzzle.

You might like to find an online version of the Tower of Hanoi puzzle (such as this one [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] ) and try it for yourself. (Note: neurotypical people as well as autistic people may find this task difficult. No conclusions can be drawn from finding the task challenging.)

Other executive function tasks test flexibility and the ability to generate new ideas.

Watch this video clip, in which Dr Jamie Craig asks first a child with autism, and then a typically developing child to suggest new uses for a piece of foam. You will notice that while both children come up with some ideas, the typically developing child offers a greater and richer range of suggestions (Craig and Baron-Cohen, 1999).

Download this video clip.Video player: aut_1_wk04_imagination_test.mp4
Copy this transcript to the clipboard
Print this transcript
Show transcript|Hide transcript
 
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).

Executive function difficulties may be one reason why even able autistic people can find everyday life challenging. Difficulties with everyday organisational tasks are well illustrated in this interview extract with Wenn Lawson (Lawson and Roth, 2011):

Download this audio clip.Audio player: aut_1_wk04_lawson_autism_and_family_life_clip.mp3
Copy this transcript to the clipboard
Print this transcript
Show transcript|Hide transcript
 
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).

Take your learning further

Making the decision to study can be a big step, which is why you'll want a trusted University. The Open University has 50 years’ experience delivering flexible learning and 170,000 students are studying with us right now. Take a look at all Open University courses.

If you are new to University-level study, we offer two introductory routes to our qualifications. You could either choose to start with an Access module, or a module which allows you to count your previous learning towards an Open University qualification. Read our guide on Where to take your learning next for more information.

Not ready for formal University study? Then browse over 1000 free courses on OpenLearn and sign up to our newsletter to hear about new free courses as they are released.

Every year, thousands of students decide to study with The Open University. With over 120 qualifications, we’ve got the right course for you.

Request an Open University prospectus371