Brain Mechanisms Supporting Flexible Cognition and Behavior in Adolescents With Autism Spectrum Disorder

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19 Scopus citations


Cognitive flexibility enables appropriate responses to a changing environment and is associated with positive life outcomes. Adolescence, with its increased focus on transitioning to independent living, presents particular challenges for youths with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) who often struggle to behave in a flexible way when faced with challenges. This review focuses on brain mechanisms underlying the development of flexible cognition during adolescence and how these neural systems are affected in ASD. Neuroimaging studies of task switching and set-shifting provide evidence for atypical lateral frontoparietal and midcingulo-insular network activation during cognitive flexibility task performance in individuals with ASD. Recent work also examines how intrinsic brain network dynamics support flexible cognition. These dynamic functional connectivity studies provide evidence for alterations in the number of transitions between brain states, as well as hypervariability of functional connections in adolescents with ASD. Future directions for the field include addressing issues related to measurement of cognitive flexibility using a combination of metrics with ecological and construct validity. Heterogeneity of executive function ability in ASD must also be parsed to determine which individuals will benefit most from targeted training to improve flexibility. The influence of pubertal hormones on brain network development and cognitive maturation in adolescents with ASD is another area requiring further exploration. Finally, the intriguing possibility that bilingualism might be associated with preserved cognitive flexibility in ASD should be further examined. Addressing these open questions will be critical for future translational neuroscience investigations of cognitive and behavioral flexibility in adolescents with ASD.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)172-183
Number of pages12
JournalBiological Psychiatry
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jan 15 2021


  • Bilingualism
  • Brain dynamics
  • Cognitive flexibility
  • Executive function
  • Lateral frontoparietal network
  • Midcingulo-insular network
  • Restricted and repetitive behaviors

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biological Psychiatry


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