Is executive function disorder a real diagnosis?

By Thomas E. Brown, PhD

Is Executive Function Disorder a Real Diagnosis?, executive function, dad and kid on a beach

Question:

Someone told me my child’s impulsivity and trouble focusing might be due to executive function disorder. Is that a real diagnosis?

Answer:

There’s no diagnosis called “executive function disorder.” You won’t find the term in the DSM-5, the manual clinicians use to diagnose conditions. Some people may use that term to describe executive function challenges, however.

Weakness in executive skills can create problems in all areas of life. That’s because executive function is the self-management system of the brain. It allows us to organize and plan, focus and shift focus, and manage emotions, among other important tasks.

Executive function develops fastest in the preschool years. But it’s still limited at this time. It develops gradually during grade school and continues developing through high school and beyond. In fact, executive function doesn’t fully mature for most people until they’re about 20 to 25 years old.

Problems with executive function aren’t a disorder on their own. But they are the main factor in one of the most common disorders in kids: ADHD.

Kids with ADHD are much slower to develop executive function than most of their peers. That delay can cause mild, moderate, or severe difficulty with the daily skills that depend on executive function. (Executive function challenges can also happen as a result of head injury, stroke, or diseases like Alzheimer’s.)

If your child is very delayed in developing executive skills, you might want to seek an evaluation for ADHD. Kids with learning differences, even without ADHD, also may have weakness in some executive skills. A full evaluation can reveal what those weaknesses are.

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    About the author

    About the author

    Thomas E. Brown, PhD is a clinical psychologist and clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the Keck School of Medicine of USC.