Mapping neurodevelopmental diversity in executive function

Silvana Mareva, The CALM Team, Joni Holmes

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Executive function, an umbrella term used to describe the goal-directed regulation of thoughts, actions, and emotions, is an important dimension implicated in neurodiversity and established malleable predictor of multiple adult outcomes. Neurodevelopmental differences have been linked to both executive function strengths and weaknesses, but evidence for associations between specific profiles of executive function and specific neurodevelopmental conditions is mixed. In this exploratory study, we adopt an unsupervised machine learning approach (self-organising maps), combined with k-means clustering to identify data-driven profiles of executive function in a transdiagnostic sample of 566 neurodivergent children aged 8-18 years old. We include measures designed to capture two distinct aspects of executive function: performance-based tasks designed to tap the state-like efficiency of cognitive skills under optimal conditions, and behaviour ratings suited to capturing the trait-like application of cognitive control in everyday contexts. Three profiles of executive function were identified: one had consistent difficulties across both types of assessments, while the other two had inconsistent profiles of predominantly rating- or predominantly task-based difficulties. Girls and children without a formal diagnosis were more likely to have an inconsistent profile of primarily task-based difficulties. Children with these different profiles had differences in academic achievement and mental health outcomes and could further be differentiated from a comparison group of children on both shared and profile-unique patterns of neural white matter organisation. Importantly, children’s executive function profiles were not directly related to diagnostic categories or to dimensions of neurodiversity associated with specific diagnoses (e.g., hyperactivity, inattention, social communication). These findings support the idea that the two types of executive function assessments provide non-redundant information related to children’s neurodevelopmental differences and that they should not be used interchangeably. The findings advance our understanding of executive function profiles and their relationship to behavioural outcomes and neural variation in neurodivergent populations.
Original languageEnglish
Early online date23 Jan 2024
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 23 Jan 2024

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