Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders

, Volume 37, Issue 6, pp 1155–1165 | Cite as

Inhibitory Control in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder

  • Shawn E. Christ
  • Daniel D. Holt
  • Desirée A. White
  • Leonard Green
Original Paper


Impairments in executive abilities such as cognitive flexibility have been identified in individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). It remains unclear, however, whether such individuals also experience impairments in another executive ability: inhibitory control. In the present study, we administered three inhibitory tasks to 18 children with ASD, 23 siblings of children with ASD, and 25 typically developing children. After controlling for individual differences in age, overall IQ, and processing speed, children with ASD demonstrated impaired performance on two of the three inhibitory tasks. Results suggest that children with ASD experience circumscribed deficits in some but not all aspects of inhibitory control. More generally, the findings underscore the importance of using multiple measures to assess a putative single cognitive ability.


Inhibitory control Autism Children Development Executive abilities 


  1. Alexander, G., DeLong, M., & Strick, P. (1986). Parallel organization of functionally segregated circuits linking basal ganglia and cortex. Annual Review of Neuroscience, 9, 357–381.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. American Psychiatric Association. (1994). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association.Google Scholar
  3. Asarnow, R., Brown, W., & Strandburg, R. (1995). Children with schizophrenic disorder: Neurobehavioral studies. European Archives of Psychiatry & Clinical Neuroscience, 245, 70–79.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Burke, W., Zencius, A., Wesolowski, M., & Doubleday, F. (1991). Improving executive function disorders in brain-injured clients. Brain Injury, 5, 241–252.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  5. Carlson, S. (2003). Executive function in context: Development, measurement, theory, and experience. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 68, 138–151.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Carter, C., Robertson, L., & Nordahl, T. (1992). Abnormal processing of irrelevant information in schizophrenia: Selective enhancement of Stroop facilitation. Psychiatry Research, 41, 137–146.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Casey, B., Castellanos, F., Giedd, J., Marsh, W., Hamburger, S., Schubert, A., et al. (1997). Implication of right frontostriatal circuitry in response inhibition and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 36, 374–383.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Casey, B., Durston, S., & Fossella, J. (2001). Evidence for a mechanistic model of cognitive control. Clinical Neuroscience Research, 1, 267–282.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Casey, B., Tottenham, N., & Fossella, J. (2002). Clinical, imaging, lesion, and genetic approaches toward a model of cognitive control. Developmental Psychobiology, 40, 237–254.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Christ, S., Steiner, R., Grange, D., Abrams, R., & White, D. (in press). Inhibitory control in children with prefrontal dysfunction related to phenylketonuria. Developmental Neuropsychology.Google Scholar
  11. Christ, S., White, D., Brunstrom, J., & Abrams, R. (2003). Inhibitory control following prenatal brain injury. Neuropsychology, 17, 171–178.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Christ, S., White, D., Mandernach, T., & Keys, B. (2001). Inhibitory control across the life-span. Developmental Neuropsychology, 20, 653–669.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Chugani, D., Muzik, O., Rothermel, R., Behen, M., Chakraborty, P., Mangner, T., et al. (1997). Altered serotonin synthesis in the dentatothalamocortical pathway in autistic boys. Annals of Neurology, 42, 666–669.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Comalli, P., Wapner, W., & Werner, H. (1962). Interference effects of Stroop color-word test in childhood, adulthood, and aging. Journal of Genetic Psychology, 100, 47–53.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  15. Cummings, J. (1995). Anatomic and behavioral aspects of frontal-subcortical circuits. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 769, 1–13.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Dagenbach D., & Carr T. (Eds.). (1994). Inhibitory processes in attention, memory, & language. San Diego: Academic Press.Google Scholar
  17. Dempster, F. (1992). The rise and fall of the inhibitory mechanism: Toward a unified theory of cognitive development and aging. Developmental Review, 12, 45–75.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Diamond, A., Ciaramitaro, V., Donner, E., Djali, S., & Robinson, M. (1994). An animal model of early-treated PKU. Journal of Neuroscience, 14, 3072–3082.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  19. Diamond, A., Prevor, M., Callendar, G., & Druin, D. (1997). Prefrontal cortex cognitive deficits in children treated early and continuously for PKU. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 62, 1–206.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Drewe, E. (1975). Go–nogo learning after frontal lobe lesions in humans. Cortex, 11, 8–16.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  21. Enns, J., & Akhtar, N. (1989). A developmental study of filtering in visual attention. Child Development, 60, 1188–1199.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Eriksen, C. (1995). The flankers task and response competition: A useful tool for investigating a variety of cognitive problems. Visual Cognition, 2, 101–118.Google Scholar
  23. Eriksen, B., & Eriksen, C. (1974). Effects of noise letters upon the identification of a target letter in a nonsearch task. Perception & Psychophysics, 16, 143–149.Google Scholar
  24. Eskes, G., Bryson, S., & McCormick, T. (1990). Comprehension of concrete and abstract words in autistic children. Journal of Autism & Developmental Disorders, 20, 61–73.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Geurts, H., Verte, S., Oosterlaan, J., Roeyers, H., & Sergeant, J. (2004). How specific are executive functioning deficits in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism? Journal of Child Psychology & Psychiatry, 45, 836–854.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Golden, C. (1978). Stroop color and word test. Chicago: Stoelting.Google Scholar
  27. Griffith, E., Pennington, B., Wehner, E., & Rogers, S. (1999). Executive function in young children in autism. Child Development, 70, 817–832.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Hasher, L., & Zacks, R. (1988). Working memory, comprehension, and aging: A review and a new view. In G. Bower (Ed.), The psychology of learning and motivation: Advances in research and theory (Vol. 22, pp. 193–225). San Diego: Academic Press.Google Scholar
  29. Hayes, W. (1994). Statistics. (5th ed.) Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace.Google Scholar
  30. Hill, E. (2004a). Evaluating the theory of executive dysfunction in autism. Developmental Review, 24, 189–233.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Hill, E. (2004b). Executive dysfunction in autism. Trends in Cognitive Science, 8, 26–32.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Hughes, C., Plumet, M., & Leboyer, M. (1999). Towards a cognitive phenotype for autism: Increased prevalence of executive dysfunction and superior spatial span amongst siblings of children with autism. Journal of Child Psychology & Psychiatry, 40, 705–718.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Iarocci, G., & Burack, J. (2004). Intact covert orienting to peripheral cues among children with autism. Journal of Autism & Developmental Disorders, 34, 257–264.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Insel, T. (1988). Obsessive-compulsive disorder: A neuroethological perspective. Psychopharmacology Bulletin, 24, 365–369.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  35. Jarrold, C., & Brock, J. (2004). To match or not to match? Methodological issues in autism-related research. Journal of Autism & Developmental Disorders, 34, 81–86.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Konishi, S., Kawazu, M., Uchida, I., Kikyo, H., Asakura, I., & Miyashita, Y. (1999). Contribution of working memory to transient activation in human inferior prefrontal cortex during performance of the Wisconsin Card Sorting Test. Cerebral Cortex, 9, 745–753.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Leckman, J., Price, R., Walkup, J., Ort, S., Pauls, D., & Cohen, J. (1987). Nongenetic factors in Gilles de la Tourette’s syndrome. Archives of General Psychiatry, 44, 100.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  38. Levin, H., Culhane, K., Hartmann, J., Evankovich, K., Mattson, A., Harward, H., et al. (1991). Developmental changes in performance on tests of purported frontal lobe functioning. Developmental Neuropsychology, 7, 377–395.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Logan, G. (1994). On the ability to inhibit thought and action: A user’s guide to the stop signal paradigm. In D. Dagenbach, & T. Carr (Eds.), Inhibitory processes in attention, memory, and language (pp. 189–239). San Diego: Academic Press.Google Scholar
  40. Luna, B., Minshew, N., Garver, K., Lazar, N., Thulborn, K., Eddy, W., et al. (2002). Neocortical system abnormalities in autism: An fMRI study of spatial working memory. Neurology, 59, 834–840.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  41. MacLeod, C. (1991). Half a century of research on the Stroop effect: An integrative review. Psychological Bulletin, 109, 163–203.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Miller B., & Cummings J. (Eds.). (1999). The human frontal lobes. New York: The Guilford Press.Google Scholar
  43. Milner, B., & Petrides, M. (1984). Behavioural effects of frontal-lobe lesions in man. Trends in Neurosciences, 7, 403–407.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Minshew, N., Luna, B., & Sweeney, J. (1999). Oculomotor evidence for neocortical systems but no cerebellar dysfunction in autism. Neurology, 52, 917–922.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  45. Ohnishi, T., Matsuda, H., Hashimoto, T., Kunihiro, T., Nishikawa, M., Uema, T., et al. (2000). Abnormal regional blood flow in childhood autism. Brain, 123, 1838–1844.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Oosterlaan, J., & Sergeant, J. (1996). Inhibition in ADHD, aggressive, and anxious children: A biologically based model of child psychopathology. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 24, 19–36.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Ozonoff, S., & Jensen, J. (1999). Brief report: Specific executive function profiles in three neurodevelopmental disorders. Journal of Autism & Developmental Disorders, 29, 171–177.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Ozonoff, S., Rogers, S., Farnham, J., & Pennington, B. (1993). Can standard measures identify subclinical markers of autism? Journal of Autism & Developmental Disorders, 23, 429–441.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Ozonoff, S., & Strayer, D. (1997). Inhibitory function in nonretarded children with autism. Journal of Autism & Developmental Disorders, 27, 59–77.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Ozonoff, S., Strayer, D., McMahon, W., & Fillouz, F. (1994). Executive function abilities in autism: An informational processing approach. Journal of Child Psychology & Psychiatry, 35, 1015–1031.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Pennington, B. (1997). Dimensions of executive functions in normal, abnormal development. In N. Krasnegor, G. Lyon & P. Goldman-Rakic (Eds.), Development of the prefrontal cortex (pp. 265–281). Baltimore: Paul Brooks.Google Scholar
  52. Perlstein, W., Carter, C., Barch, D., & Baird, J. (1998). The stroop task and attention deficits in Schizophrenia: A critical evaluation of card and single-trial Stroop methodologies. Neuropsychology, 12, 414–425.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Psychological Corporation. (1999). Wechsler abbreviated scale of intelligence. San Antonio, TX: Psychological Corporation.Google Scholar
  54. Rapoport, J., Giedd, J., Blumenthal, J., Hamburger, S., Jeffries, N., Fernandez, T., et al. (1999). Progressive cortical change during adolescence in childhood-onset schizophrenia: A longitudinal magnetic resonance imaging study. Archives of General Psychiatry, 56, 649–654.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Raymaekers, R., van der Meere, J., & Roeyers, H. (2004). Event-rate manipulation and its effect on arousal modulation and response inhibition in adults with high functioning autism. Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology, 26, 74–82.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Rubia, K., Overmeyer, S., Taylor, E., Brammer, M., Williams, S., Simmons, A., et al. (1999). Hypofrontality in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder during higher-order motor control: A study with functional MRI. American Journal of Psychiatry, 156, 891–896.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  57. Russell, J. (1997). Autism as an executive disorder. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  58. Salmond, C., de Haan, M., Friston, K., Gadian, D., & Vargha-Khadem, F. (2003). Investigating individual differences in brain abnormalities in autism. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological Sciences, 358, 405–413.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Saxena, S., Brody, A., Schwartz, J., & Baxter, L. (1998). Neuroimaging and frontal-subcortical circuitry in obsessive-compulsive disorder. British Journal of Psychiatry, 173, 26–37.Google Scholar
  60. Schatz, A., Weimer, A., & Trauner, D. (2002). Brief report: Attention differences in Asperger syndrome. Journal of Autism & Developmental Disorders, 32, 333–356.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Schiller, P. (1966). Developmental study of color-word interference. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 72, 105–108.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Sichel, J., & Chandler, K. (1969). The color-word interference test: The effects of varied color-word combinations upon verbal response latency. Journal of Psychology, 72, 219–231.Google Scholar
  63. Stroop, J. (1935). Studies of interference in serial verbal reactions. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 18, 643–662.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Stuss, D. (1992). Biological and psychological development of executive functions. Brain & Cognition, 20, 8–23.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Welsh, M., Pennington, B., Ozonoff, S., Rouse, B., & McCabe, E. (1990). Neuropsychology of early-treated phenylketonuria: Specific executive function deficits. Child Development, 61, 1697–1713.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. Zilbovicius, M., Garreau, B., Samson, Y., Remy, P., Barthelemy, C., Syrota, A., et al. (1995). Delayed maturation of the frontal cortex in childhood autism. American Journal of Psychiatry, 152, 248–252.PubMedGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2006

Authors and Affiliations

  • Shawn E. Christ
    • 1
    • 2
  • Daniel D. Holt
    • 1
    • 3
  • Desirée A. White
    • 1
  • Leonard Green
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of PsychologyWashington UniversitySt. LouisUSA
  2. 2.Department of Psychological SciencesUniversity of Missouri-ColumbiaColumbiaUSA
  3. 3.Department of PsychologyUniversity of Wisconsin-Eau ClaireEau ClaireUSA

Personalised recommendations