Background: Previous studies have shown that individuals with autism show impaired performance on tests of executive function (Ozonoff et al. 1991, 1993; Hughes & Russell, 1993; Hughes et al. 1994). There is also strong evidence for genetic involvement in autism (see Rutter, 1991 for review). If executive dysfunction is a core impairment in autism, then similar impairments are hypothesized to exist in a subtler form among the parents of autistic children.
Methods: Forty parents of autistic children were compared with 40 parents of learning disabled children and 36 adults from unaffected families on three computerized tests of executive function. These tasks tapped attentional-shifting skills, visuospatial planning and working memory. Participants also received a computerized control test of spatial memory-span. In addition, the interviewer's initial impressions of family members were coded using a new 33-item questionnaire.
Results: A significant proportion of parents of autistic children (especially fathers) showed impaired executive function. By contrast, parents did as well as both comparison groups on a control test of spatial span, and on other 'non-executive' measures from the tasks, indicating that the autism group were as able and motivated as comparison groups. Interestingly, impairment of executive function was significantly correlated with the interviewer's pre-test impression of social abnormality among parents of autistic children.
Conclusions: The hypothesis that a significant proportion of parents of autistic children show impaired executive function was supported. Parents showed good memory ability, but relatively poor planning skills and attentional flexibility. The extent to which this is an inherent trait in family members, rather than a reflection of the difficulties involved in caring for an autistic child, remains to be examined.