Exploring the Association Between Autistic Traits and Executive Function Among Typically Developing Adults
Objectives: The present study examined whether young adults with higher autistic traits experience increased behavioral and cognitive difficulties associated with poorer executive function.
Methods: 57 young adults (18-25 years old) were administered the Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ), and designated as high autistic traits (n=22) or low autistic traits (n=35). The Behavior Rating Inventory of Executive Function (BRIEF-A) was used to evaluate executive function. The BRIEF-A self-report was compared with the BRIEF-A informant-report to evaluate the construct of self-awareness. Cognitive flexibility skills were also measured using the Trail Making Test (TMT), Gender-Emotion Switch Task, and the Intra-dimensional/extra-dimensional (IDED) task.
Results: Individuals with higher autistic traits reported having more difficulties than the low autistic traits group in the BRIEF-A self-report in three scales: Shift (p<0.01), Emotional Control (p<0.01) and Behavioural Regulation Index (BRI; p<0.05). Four scales were found to be significant only in the high autistic traits group in the BRIEF-A informant-report: Inhibit (p<0.05), Emotional Control (p<0.01), Self-monitor (p<0.05) and BRI (p<0.01). Significant differences were found in the emotional control scale within the group of high autist traits when comparing the BRIEF-A self-report with the BRIEF-A informant-report (p<0.05). No significant differences were found in cognitive flexibility tasks between the two groups.
Conclusions: Individuals with higher autistic traits reported having more executive functioning difficulties, suggesting that difficulties with executive function might extend beyond those meeting clinical criteria for autism spectrum disorder. Parents and close friends of individuals with higher traits in autism also reported poorer executive function of their children/friends. Individuals with high autistic traits were found to have lower self-awareness associated with difficulties on the emotional control domain. These findings call for further research on the relationship between autistic trait and executive abilities, particularly with respect to underlying mechanisms that might mediate this association.