Individual Differences in Executive Function Are Predictive of Autistic Children's School Readiness

Thursday, May 12, 2016: 5:30 PM-7:00 PM
Hall A (Baltimore Convention Center)
L. Kenny1, H. Lichwa1, E. Klaric1, J. L. Brede1, R. McMillin1 and E. Pellicano1,2, (1)Centre for Research in Autism and Education (CRAE), UCL Institute of Education, University College London, London, United Kingdom, (2)School of Psychology, University of Western Australia, WA, Australia
Background: Long-term follow-up studies show that the developmental outcomes of autistic people are highly variable, even for individuals at the more able end of the autism spectrum. While some individuals go on to live independently, the majority fail to attain full-time employment or to enjoy fulfilling friendships. Explaining this variability is of critical import: to discover why developments take place in some areas and not in others, and especially in some children and not in others. One potential source of this variability may be autistic children’s emerging executive function (EF): a set of higher-order processes, closely associated with the prefrontal cortex, which are necessary for regulating and controlling behaviour. EF is a promising candidate not least because poor EF is well documented in autism but also because research in typical development indicates that well-regulated EF (1) helps to shape young children’s social awareness, (2) is predictive of pre-schoolers’ school readiness and academic achievement and (3) is amenable to intervention. Furthermore, research has demonstrated longitudinal links between EF and another core neurocognitive function impaired in autism – theory of mind.

Objectives: The present study investigated the relationship between emerging executive abilities and school readiness in pre-school children with and without autism. Further, we examined the extent to which individual differences in executive skills were associated with a child’s readiness for school in autism and typical development alike.

Methods: 30 preschool children on the autism spectrum (M age = 4.44 years; SD=1.02) and 30 typical children (M = 4.42 years; SD= .88), matched for age and ability, were assessed on a battery of tasks measuring components of EF, including set-shifting, working memory and inhibition, and school readiness (indexed by performance on the Bracken School Readiness Scale).

Results: Compared to typical children, autistic children performed significantly lower on the School Readiness Composite score, F(1,58) = 8.13, p =.006 and the School Readiness Social subtest, F(1,58) = 63.46, p < .001. Children on the autism spectrum also had more difficulty with set-shifting, F(1,58) = 34.26, p <.001, working memory, F(1,58) = 30.72, p < .001 and inhibition, F(1,58) = 13.20, p=.001. Additionally, and in line with our predictions, individual differences in autistic children’s EF skills, especially in spatial working memory, were related to variation in their school readiness, just like they were in typically developing children 

Conclusions: The findings from this cross-sectional study provide further support for the potential role of EF in explaining the variability in autistic children’s functional outcomes, in this case, their readiness to learn at school. Intervention programmes to boost EF development in preschool children with autism – especially those that ‘exercise’ EF or rely on implicit rather than explicit instruction of such skills – should be a key priority for future research.