Language, Social, and Executive Functions in High Functioning
Autism: A Continuum of Performance
Rebecca J. Landa
and Melissa C. Goldberg
This study examined language and executive functions (EF) in high-functioning school-aged
individuals with autism and individually matched controls. Relationships between executive,
language, and social functioning were also examined. Participants with autism exhibited
diﬃculty on measures of expressive grammar, ﬁgurative language, planning, and spatial
working memory. A mixed proﬁle of impaired and enhanced abilities was noted in set-shifting.
While controls showed the typical increase in errors when shifting sets from an intra-
dimensional to an extra-dimensional stimulus, this pattern was not noted in participants with
autism. Relationships between EF, language, and social performance were weak to non-
existent. Implications for theories of core deﬁcit in autism and dissociable nature of the
language and executive impairments in autism are discussed.
KEY WORDS: Executive functions, autism, language, social, working memory, ﬂexibility.
This paper examines language and executive
function (EF) in a sample of high-functioning indi-
viduals with autism (HFA) and age- and IQ-matched
controls. Possible relationships between language,
social, and executive functions in this sample are also
examined. This is the ﬁrst report to examine these
three domains of functioning within the same group
of school-aged individuals with HFA. Understanding
language and executive function impairment in HFA
is critical for accurate diagnosis, making appropriate
educational adaptations, and better understanding
the neuropsychobiological impairment in HFA.
All children with HFA have verbal and non-
verbal communication impairments. What is the
nature of these impairments? The sparse literature
on language functioning in HFA is suggestive of
mixed abilities, with preserved and impaired compo-
nents. Relatively preserved components involve lin-
guistic form (e.g., phonological and grammatical
domains) (Bartak, Rutter, & Cox, 1975; Pierce &
Bartolucci, 1977; Tager-Flusberg, 1981). Despite
reports that grammatical development in autism is
relatively spared (for developmental level), there is an
indication that some aspects of grammatical devel-
opment may be impaired, for example, particular
grammatical markers (Scarborough, Rescorla, Tager-
Flusberg, Fowler, & Sudhalter, 1991) and syntax
comprehension in teens and adults with HFA (Min-
shew, Goldstein, & Siegel, 1995; Muller et al., 1999).
Diﬀerences in ﬁndings across studies regarding
impaired or intact grammatical comprehension in
The Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, Baltimore, MD USA.
Correspondence should be addressed to: Center for Autism and
Related Disorders, Kennedy Krieger Institute, 3901 Greenspring
Avenue, Baltimore, MD 21211, USA; e-mail: Landa@
0162-3257/05/1000-0557/0 Ó 2005 Springer ScienceþBusiness Media, Inc.
Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, Vol. 35, No. 5, October 2005 (Ó 2005)