Executive Function Difficulties in Adults with Dyslexia

brain drawing lots confusion

If you’re an adult with dyslexia, it is likely that you have experienced executive function difficulty. When functioning properly, our executive function helps with self regulation and supporting our ability to achieve goals. Examples of tasks that use executive function include adapting our response to a sudden change, task switching (commonly known as multitasking), planning, problem solving, sequencing tasks, and more. 

Smith-Spark and colleagues (2016) noticed that, while executive function difficulties have been observed in children with dyslexia, the limited research on this topic in adults has had two limitations. It has not compared adults with dyslexia to similar age- and IQ-matched peers, and has not measured the perspective of the individual with dyslexia and their executive functions. So they decided to conduct their own study to look at (1) how adults with dyslexia report their own executive function difficulties, and (2) whether executive function difficulties in adults with dyslexia is observed in lab-based tasks. 

The authors recruited 61 college students for this study, with both groups (students with dyslexia and students without dyslexia) having a mean age of 24. The group with dyslexia consisted of 23 females and 8 males, and all were tested for dyslexia prior to the study. The group without dyslexia consisted of 22 females and 8 males. The authors also had participants have their reading and writing tested to ensure they were placed in the right groups. 

Study 1: Do adults with dyslexia really feel like they struggle with executive function? 

To measure participant’s self-ratings of their executive function in daily life, the authors used the adult version of the Behavior Rating Inventory of Executive Function (BRIEF-A). The BRIEF-A has 75 questions using a 3 point scale, where individuals mark how often they felt they experienced a certain problem related to their executive function over the past month (1 – Never, 2 = Sometimes, and 3 = Often). Higher scores on the BRIEF-A indicate an increased frequency of self-reported problems. 

There were 3 composite scores analyzed: the Global Executive Composite (GEC, an overall score from the BRIEF-A), the Metacognition Index (looking at the ability to solve problems in an organized way using your working memory), and the Behavioral Regulation Index (a composite score that measures how well someone feels they controlled and regulated their emotional responses and behaviors). The authors also looked at various indices of performance (we’ll get into some of those below). 

Answer: Yes, adults with dyslexia do report struggling more with dyslexia than their peers who don’t have dyslexia. 

The results suggest that the group with dyslexia had a higher GEC and Metacognition Index rating than the group without dyslexia. These two scores were statistically significant, which means we can say that it is very unlikely that these scores were due to chance. And while the group with dyslexia scored higher on the Behavioral Regulation Index than their peers without dyslexia, the difference was not statistically significant. 

So what does this mean? 

It appears that the adults with dyslexia in this sample reported being more likely to have problems with working memory–managing the demands of current and future tasks–and having difficulty with problem solving

On the question of emotion regulation, adults with dyslexia do not have greater difficulty with emotional regulation than their peers who do not have dyslexia. 

Study 2: Do adults with dyslexia show executive function difficulties when doing laboratory-based tasks? 

For this study, all but one of the participants from the previous study continued. 3 tasks were used to measure executive function, and I’ll use one of them as an example to demonstrate  what they did. For the task where they measured inhibition (the ability to pause your response to really think through a question) participants were presented with 200 pictures—80% of the pictures were a sketch of a bear, and 20% of them were a sketch of a rabbit. The first 40 pictures were all of the bear (to get participants used to the bear), then participants saw 140 more pictures of the bear and then 20 of the rabbit. The rabbit drawings were given about every 3-6 trials and participants responded to each stimulus one after the other. The purpose of the exercise was to see how well participants stopped and really looked at the card, instead of blurting out the first answer that came to mind. 

Answer: Yes, adults with dyslexia show impairments in all three components of executive function: shifting, inhibition, and updating. 

When adults with dyslexia were asked to switch between adding and subtracting 3 with various numbers, they responded 2.5x slower than their peers without dyslexia. 

Results from the bear and rabbit test mentioned above, adults with dyslexia performed equally to their peers without dyslexia when it came to choosing the bear (the habituated stimulus). However, adults with dyslexia were significantly less accurate when it came time to choose the rabbit instead of the bear (inhibiting the response you think it might be to choose the other one). 

The task that measured adults’ ability to update–a person’s ability to “refresh the contents of working memory in light of new information”–was apparent not just in stimuli that involved the phonological loop of the working memory, but also the visuospatial components of it. 

How does this study apply to me? 

This study affirms what many of you have already seen in your life: that your difficulties with daily tasks like planning and completing tasks, solving problems, and multitasking are justified

Another way we can apply this study is by recognizing that dyslexia is not only related to reading and writing, but also executive functioning. One way you can take this study and apply it is by advocating for yourself when you need to write things down, or set a timer before you switch tasks, or need to think problems through a little bit more. 

Red Square Pegs was established to empower dyslexics by embracing dyslexia through awareness and shared experiences and to be a symbol of acceptance, pride, and confidence.