Understanding autism
Understanding autism

This free course is available to start right now. Review the full course description and key learning outcomes and create an account and enrol if you want a free statement of participation.

Free course

Understanding autism

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’.

Described image
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
Skip transcript

Transcript

MALE TEACHER:
What could this shape be? What does it look like?
CHILD:
Glass
NARRATOR:
In this experiment a boy with autistic spectrum disorder is asked to see the possibilities of a piece of foam.
MALE TEACHER:
What about this way? What could it be if it was this way?
CHILD:
A foot
MALE TEACHER:
A foot. Very well done. Thats right.
NARRATOR:
The same task is given to a typically developing child
MALE TEACHER:
Can you tell me lots of things this could be?
TYPICAL CHILD
A snake.
MALE TEACHER:
A snake. What else could it be?
TYPICAL CHILD:
A hat. A measuring board. A circle. Thats the shoe and thats the leg. That part can be a stem and that part can be a leaf.
ILONA ROTH:
Just producing fewer responses in some of these tasks is not necessarily a sign of impoverished imagination. It might be a deficit in what is called executive function, the ability to respond flexibly to situations. But in these tasks the responses were scored for both their quality and their quantity and the autistic children had difficulties with both of those.
MALE TEACHER:
It seems to be when you talk to people about imagination they expect something that steps out of ordinary just coming up with lots of answers. In terms of the imagery involved there seems to be a distinction between real world imagery and impossible or unreal imagery.
End transcript
Copy this transcript to the clipboard
Print this 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
Skip transcript

Transcript

WENN LAWSON
For example, I am no good at budgeting, I am not good with filling in forms, I am not good with paperwork, I am not good with money, I can do statistics but not numbers, which sounds a bit odd; but formulas are a lot easier to work with than everyday math. So I have family who take charge of those sort of things, and that frees me up just to focus in on my writing and lecturing and touring to talk in various ways about autism. If I didn’t have that, I'm not sure quite how I’d cope. I feel very strongly about Viktor Frankl’s understanding about meaning in life, and the meaning for me is sharing about what autism is. So I suppose that is how we separate the roles in our family. I adapt by accepting my limitations. It’s hard sometimes accepting that I am not very good at crossing roads. I've only been knocked over once this year so far, which isn’t bad. Even though I know academically about looking in all directions and listening while you cross the road, what tends to happen is that I get so focused on noticing that that truck has now gone, I forget again to look the way that the truck came from just to check there’s nothing else coming. Things like this I find quite difficult but I realise that I have these limitations. and so I tend not to travel alone and I have a lot of support.
End transcript
Copy this transcript to the clipboard
Print this transcript
 
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).
AUT_1

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 nearly 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, find out more about the types of qualifications we offer, including our entry level Access courses and Certificates.

Not ready for University study then browse over 900 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 prospectus