What Is an Executive Function Disorder?
An executive function disorder is a neurological disorder that creates a pattern of inattention, impulsivity, hyperactive behavior, or a combination of all three. This type of disorder also creates a pattern of problems with analyzing information, planning, organizing information, completing tasks, and managing time/deadlines. Approximately 5% to 10% of school-aged children are diagnosed with executive function disorders. The numbers are not as clear for the adult population but impairment from executive function disorders frequently continues into adulthood. Executive function disorders run in the family.
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a well-known executive function disorder. Children, adolescents, and adults with significant attention difficulties may demonstrate one of three types of ADHD:
- Combined Type (both hyperactive-impulsive and inattentive)
The hyperactive type is more commonly seen in males. The inattentive type is more common in females, who may not be referred for assessment as often as males due to the “quiet” nature of inattentive symptoms. Despite differences in these subtypes, people with all types of executive function disorders struggle with self-regulation. Self-regulation is the ability to initiate or persist at goal-directed behaviors.
Children’s difficulties with executive functioning will likely become apparent by the time they reach the age of four or five years old. This is about the age that many of the characteristics listed below become more apparent in the structured school setting. Four or five years old is also the age when these behaviors become less appropriate for their age. You may recognize some of the following characteristics in your child or yourself:
- Makes careless mistakes at school or work
- Poor organization skills
- Poor self-control (e.g., easily distracted, talks excessively, interrupts others’ conversations, difficulty waiting turn)
- Fidgety; acts as if “on the go” or “driven by a motor”
- Has difficulty following through with responsibilities
Executive function disorder assessments are usually performed by a clinical psychologist or psychiatrist. Diagnosis occurs through a combination of techniques and includes a clinician, client, parent(s), teacher(s), and significant other(s) if applicable. Observations of how the client behaves at school, home, or work are made by appropriate people, often using structured behavioral checklists. The clinician will conduct an interview with the client to hear about the client’s past and current functioning. The client will also participate in a psychoeducational assessment to measure any impact on the person’s cognitive or academic functioning.
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