The Relationship Between ADHD and Executive Dysfunction

By Jess Corinne
October 26, 2022

There’s a lot of confusion around executive function (EF)—and how it relates to Attention Deficit (Hyperactivity) Disorder (ADHD). Is ADHD an executive function disorder? Is every EF disorder also ADHD? What even are EF and ADHD? The answers depend on what we mean by “executive function,” and how it presents in a learner’s life academically and socially. Let’s examine the key relationships and differences between ADHD and executive dysfunction. We’ve also included additional resources linked below to help you dig deeper. 

Webinar: The Similarities & Differences of ADHD & EF

Does EF Always Overlap with ADHD?

The term “executive functioning” was coined in the 1970s by Karl Pribram, whose research indicated that executive functioning is mediated primarily by the prefrontal cortex (the part of our brain that controls planning of complex cognitive behavior, personality expression, decision making, and moderating social behavior). Those who struggle with executive functions on a clinical level aren’t diagnosed with an executive dysfunction disorder—you won’t find executive function in the DSM-5. But, a clinician can still detect EF weaknesses—especially those that create excessive, persistent, and severe (well beyond age and gender norms) symptoms that lead to harm or impairment. Many people without an ADHD diagnosis struggle with their executive functioning, though not all who struggle with executive functioning warrant an ADHD diagnosis. So, while executive dysfunction is often a symptom of ADHD, the opposite is not always the case. 

Key Ways EF and ADHD are Related

There are so many connections between ADHD and executive dysfunction. Learners who struggle with both may:  

  • Have a hard time paying attention
  • Have difficulty with self-control
  • Have trouble managing emotions
  • Have difficulty holding information in working memory
  • Have trouble switching easily from one activity to another
  • Have trouble getting started on tasks
  • Have problems organizing time and materials
  • Have difficulty keeping track of what’s going on
  • Have difficulty completing long-term projects
  • Have trouble with thinking before acting
  • Be easily distracted 
  • Be often forgetful
  • Have trouble taking turns
  • Have problems remembering assigned tasks

One Key Difference Between ADHD & EF

ADHD can receive an official diagnosis while an executive function challenge cannot. However, trouble with executive function is not limited to diagnosable symptoms present in ADHD learners. EF refers to weaknesses in the brain’s self-management system, and people can have trouble with executive function for many reasons—not just ADHD. In fact, the majority of kids with learning differences struggle with one or more of the eleven executive function skills (i.e. working memory, cognitive flexibility, and emotional control)—making EF challenges much more widespread than ADHD, even though we’re just starting to understand how prevalent these challenges really are.

Taking Action to Support Our Learners

Now that we have uncovered how the two conditions connect with one another, it is imperative that we as parents, caregivers, and educators are cognizant of and equipped with evidence-validated strategies to treat learners who face this adversity, and to prevent unnecessary stress and frustration. Awareness of ADHD and EF can help caregivers advocate for proper accommodations and treatment. Learners with ADHD or executive dysfunction can learn to use their interests, strengths, and knowledge to further develop their underlying sensory-cognitive skills and advocate for their personal learning needs. 

If you think someone you know may have challenges relating to ADHD or executive function, contact us and we’ll be happy to offer guidance. You can also call or text us at 650-459-5900

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Additional Resources