Executive functions and their relationship with intellectual capacity and age in schoolchildren with intellectual disability
M Erostarbe-Pérez 1 , C Reparaz-Abaitua 2 , L Martínez-Pérez 3 , S Magallón-Recalde 2
Background: There is certain empirical evidence of, on the one hand, a positive correlation between executive functions (EFs) and intelligence in people with intellectual disability (ID) and, on the other hand, a slower rate of development of EFs in these people relative to people without ID. This evidence is not, however, unequivocal, and further studies are required.
Methods: We analysed the relationship between development of EFs and both age and intellectual capacity, in a sample of 106 students with either ID or borderline intellectual functioning (BIF) at a special education centre [63 boys and 43 girls, 11-18 years old, mean total intelligence quotient (TIQ) of 59.6].
We applied nine instruments to evaluate both neuropsychological development (working memory, inhibitory control, cognitive flexibility, planning, processing speed and verbal fluency) and behavioural development [teachers' perceptions of the EFs of their students by Behavior Rating Inventory of Executive Function - Second Edition (BRIEF-2) School]. ID and BIF groups were statistically compared in terms of mean performance measures in EF tests.
We looked at the correlation between EFs and age, and correlations between EFs and intelligence: TIQ, fluid intelligence [measured by the perceptual reasoning (PR) sub-index of Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children-IV (WISC-IV)] and crystallised intelligence (measured by the verbal comprehension (VC) sub-index of WISC-IV). Regression models were built for variables with strong correlation.
Results: In most of the tests used to evaluate EFs, the ID subgroup performed significantly worse than the subgroup with BIF. In general, teachers' thought that participants had 'medium-low' levels of EFs. TIQ, by WISC-IV scale, correlated significantly with scores in all tests for all EFs. The PR sub-index correlated significantly with 14 of the tests for EFs; 35% of the variation in PR can be explained by variation in performance in Picture Span (working memory) and Mazes (planning).
The VC sub-index correlated weakly with seven of the EF tests. We found significant correlations in the ID group between age and scores in all tests of working memory and inhibitory control. Age - considering all participants - did not correlate with any of the variables of teachers' perception except for working memory, and this correlation was not strong.
Conclusions: The results of our study are consistent with descriptions of the typical population: (1) fluid intelligence is more related to EFs than crystallised intelligence is; and (2) working memory capacity is the EF most strongly related with general, fluid and crystallised forms of intelligence.
The results suggest that as children and adolescents with ID/BIF get older, their capacities for working memory and inhibitory control increase; development of the other EFs studied was less evident. Teachers' perceptions of the EFs of children with ID or BIF were independent of intellectual capacity and age. More research is needed to delve further into the development of EFs in people with ID/BIF.