Executive Function in High-Functioning Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Meta-analysis of fMRI Studies

J Autism Dev Disord. 2020 Nov;50(11):4022-4038. doi: 10.1007/s10803-020-04461-z.


Abnormalities in executive function (EF) are clinical markers for autism spectrum disorder (ASD). However, the neural mechanisms underlying abnormal EF in ASD remain unclear. This meta-analysis investigated the construct, abnormalities, and age-related changes of EF in ASD. Thirty-three fMRI studies of inhibition, updating, and switching in individuals with high-functioning ASD were included (n = 1114; age range 7-57 years). The results revealed that the EF construct in ASD could be unitary (i.e., common EF) in children/adolescents, but unitary and diverse (i.e., common EF and inhibition) in adults. Abnormalities in this EF construct were found across development in individuals with ASD in comparison with typically developing individuals. Implications and recommendations are discussed for EF theory and for practice in ASD.

Keywords: Autism spectrum disorder; Development; Executive function; Fronto-parietal areas; Meta-analysis; Unity and diversity.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder / diagnostic imaging*
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder / epidemiology
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder / psychology*
  • Brain / diagnostic imaging*
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Child
  • Executive Function / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Inhibition, Psychological
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / methods*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Young Adult