Background: Executive dysfunction has been reported at different ages in autism. It is not clear however, when this impairment emerges or how its expression is affected by development.
Methods: 61 non-mentally retarded autism participants (AUT) and 61 age, gender, and IQ matched typically developing participants (CON) were assessed with two oculomotor executive function tasks, the oculomotor delayed response task (ODR) and the antisaccade task (AS), as well as a visually-guided saccade sensorimotor task (VGS).
Results: The AUT group demonstrated impairments in response inhibition and spatial working memory at all ages tested. Developmental improvements in speed of sensorimotor processing and voluntary response inhibition were similar in both groups indicating sparing of some attentional control of behavior. Developmental progression in the speed of initiating a cognitive plan and maintaining information on line over time, however, was impaired in the AUT group indicating abnormal development of working memory.
Conclusions: These results indicate that while executive dysfunction is present throughout development, there is evidence for both typical and atypical developmental progression of executive functions in autism. The plasticity suggested by the developmental improvements may have implications regarding appropriate developmental epochs and types of interventions aimed at enhancing cognitive capacities in individuals with autism.