Action control processes in autism spectrum disorder – Insights from a neurobiological and neuroanatomical perspective

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Abstract

Autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) encompass a range of syndromes that are characterized by social interaction impairments, verbal and nonverbal communication difficulties, and stereotypic or repetitive behaviours. Although there has been considerable progress in understanding the mechanisms underlying the changes in the ‘social’ and ‘communicative’ aspects of ASD, the neurofunctional architecture of repetitive and stereotypic behaviours, as well as other cognitive domains related to response and action control, remain poorly understood. Based on the findings of neurobiological and neuroanatomical alterations in ASD and the functional neuroanatomy and neurobiology of different action control functions, we emphasize that changes in action control processes, including response inhibition, conflict and response monitoring, task switching, dual-tasking, motor timing, and error monitoring, are important facets of ASD. These processes must be examined further to understand the executive control deficits in ASD that are related to stereotypic or repetitive behaviours as a major facet of ASD. The review shows that not all domains of action control are strongly affected in ASD. Several factors seem to determine the consistency with which alterations in cognitive control are reported. These factors relate to the relevance of neurobiological changes in ASD for the cognitive domains examined and in how far action control relies upon the adjustment of prior experience. Future directions and hypotheses are outlined that may guide basic and clinical research on action control in ASD.

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