Exploring the Neurocognitive and Electrophysiological Correlates of Challenging Behaviours in Adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


Young people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are characterised by high rates of co-occurring emotional and behavioural problems, one of the most concerning being challenging behaviours, which can include aggression to the self and others, and extreme non-compliance. However, the drivers of these behaviours are largely unknown. One approach to understanding psychopathology in individuals with ASD is to explore how individual variability in cognitive functioning relates to co-occurring difficulties. This thesis tested whether functioning in selected cognitive and electrophysiological domains was associated with challenging behaviours, using two independent, well-characterised samples of young people with ASD. Analyses showed that adolescents with ASD were characterised by impairments in executive functioning (EF) not only when compared against both typically developing individuals, but also against oppositional defiant/conduct disorder (ODD/CD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). However, within adolescents with ASD, behaviourally measured EF impairments were only associated with co-occurring ADHD symptoms, but not other emotional or behavioural problems. Electrophysiological indices of EF were not related to any co-occurring problems. Electrophysiological indices of perceptual processing (PP) were associated with both behaviour problems and anxiety symptoms. Finally, structural equation modelling (SEM) showed that different domains of challenging behaviours were associated with different cognitive impairments; poorer theory of mind (ToM) was associated with increased self-injurious behaviour (SIB), whereas poorer PP was associated with increased externalising behaviours. Results suggest certain cognitive domains may be important to consider when developing aetiological models of challenging behaviours in young people with ASD.
Date of Award2018
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorEmily Simonoff (Supervisor) & Francesca Happe (Supervisor)

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