Development and Psychopathology

Research Article

Neurodevelopment and executive function in autism

Kirsten O'Hearna1 c1, Miya Asatoa1, Sarah Ordaza1 and Beatriz Lunaa1

a1 University of Pittsburgh


Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by social and communication deficits, and repetitive behavior. Studies investigating the integrity of brain systems in autism suggest a wide range of gray and white matter abnormalities that are present early in life and change with development. These abnormalities predominantly affect association areas and undermine functional integration. Executive function, which has a protracted development into adolescence and reflects the integration of complex widely distributed brain function, is also affected in autism. Evidence from studies probing response inhibition and working memory indicate impairments in these core components of executive function, as well as compensatory mechanisms that permit normative function in autism. Studies also demonstrate age-related improvements in executive function from childhood to adolescence in autism, indicating the presence of plasticity and suggesting a prolonged window for effective treatment. Despite developmental gains, mature executive functioning is limited in autism, reflecting abnormalities in wide-spread brain networks that may lead to impaired processing of complex information across all domains.


c1 Address correspondence and reprint requests to: Kirsten O'Hearn, Loeffler Building, Room 112, University of Pittsburgh, 121 Meyran Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15213; E-mail: