Over the past decade there has been much debate about autism intelligence and whether autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and intellectual disabilities are linked. Or, if greater intelligence is present among the ASD population compared to neurotypicals.
These thoughts typically stem from people noticing some children with autism show above average abilities, like reading at an early age. There has also been much media attention given to savants who excel at a certain task they hyper focus on.
On the other hand, there are children with autism that have learning disabilities and struggle in school and daily tasks. Although some may have a diagnosis of “high functioning autism” rather than “low functioning” (terms which not everyone agrees with), they may still be minimally verbal and partake in repetitive behaviors that can affect their ability to function.
What can cause these differences? The answer to that question varies because autism spectrum disorder ranges so greatly. It is hard to imagine another condition where people’s abilities and intellect vary so dramatically.
What is intelligence?
There were studies performed in the early 1900s by Alfred Binet and Henri Simon while they tried to create a measure as to how quickly or slowly students learned. They created the first intelligence test believed to measure the ability to learn.
These tests included naming objects, defining words, drawing, constructing and completing sentences, and comparing items. The students with the ability to understand, reason, and make judgements correctly would test higher, and were therefore determined to have higher intelligence.
In conclusion, psychologist Charles Spearman, among many modern day psychologists, believes in the general intelligence factor that Binet and Simon stumbled upon. This factor is the ability to think abstractly, adapt to changing situations, and learn from instruction and experience.
How is intelligence measured?
It is difficult to measure intelligence in some autistic individuals. This is true particularly for those that are nonverbal, minimally verbal, and have varying cognitive abilities.
However, there are two intelligence tests known as the Leiter International Performance Scale and the Wechsler Intelligence Scale which tend to be adopted. They both measure intelligence using nonverbal experiences, as well as measuring personality traits.
Differences between Leiter International Performance Scale and Wechsler Intelligence Scale
* The Leiter International Performance Scale is a set of cognitive tests that assess cognitive abilities in individuals two to twenty years old. It measures nonverbal intelligence through reasoning, visualization, memory, and attention span
* The Wechsler Intelligence Scale is the most used test to determine a child’s intellectual abilities, cognitive strengths, and weaknesses. This scale tests four areas where cognitive deficits could occur:
1. Verbal Comprehension Index (VCI): this tests verbal skills like social communication, expressive language, social interaction and comprehension, and problem solving
2. Perceptual Reasoning Index (PRI): this measures the ability of nonverbal reasoning with the use of images
3. Working Memory Index (WMI): this checks on working and short-term memory, extended attention span, and auditory processing
4. Processing Speed Index (PSI): this measures the mental processing speed, attention span, visual-motor coordination (such as fine motor skills), and concentration
Is intelligence affected by autism?
Autism can be considered an intellectual disability for some, although that refers more to the brain formation and not the measure of intelligence of an individual. Some autistic traits are linked to a higher intelligence because of restricted interests and the celebrated savant with a passion behind those interests.
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In the article, Autism as a Disorder of Higher Intelligence, it is argued that higher intelligence is associated with autism. The studies conducted and included within the research were summarized into four main areas where higher intelligence among people with ASD can be found:
- Psychometric structure of human intelligence: within this section, enhanced perceptual abilities and fluid intelligence were found along with lowered verbal, rotation, and crystallized intelligence. This leads to the widely recognized enhanced abilities in visual-spatial, sensory discrimination, mathematic, scientific, and special interest with motivations seen among a portion of the population with high functioning autism
- Broad range of autistic links: these items include a larger brain size, quick brain growth, an increase in sensory and visual-spatial abilities, more conscious decision-making, and higher interests in engineering and physical sciences. These all correlate with the high and imbalanced intelligence hypothesis discussed throughout the article
- Three major psychological theories of autism: The stronger ability to analyze, over empathize in a situation, enhanced perception ability, and reactions within the world around them
- Comparisons between autism and schizophrenia: it was highly considered that these two diagnoses are opposites of each other. These studies concluded with labeling autism as representing a higher intelligence with a lower imagination. Schizophrenia was labeled a higher imagination and lower intelligence level
Overall, these ideas helped to clarify the connection between autistic people and those with varying intellectual disabilities, like schizophrenia. However, standard tests don’t really measure the broad spectrum of intelligence of these individuals fully.
These limitations seem to limit someone with a higher intelligence in one area, because the way the tests are arranged have an overall wrong and correct answer. Those who have autism symptoms of limited interests and pursuits may not score as high because of their knowledge of one subject over others.
Are differences in brain structure connected to autism intelligence?
Studies have found some differences in physical structures of the brain that are visible in some people with autism. Although it may not be true for all, there have been cerebral differences noted between individuals with autism and the general population.
In Autism as a Disorder of High Intelligence, brain structure differences were noted. These variances include, but are not limited to, combining a quicker brain growth in early childhood versus thinning of cortical tissues.
This means there could be an increase in the ability to process more in the moment and detailed information. That would explain the hyper focus and limited interests of some individuals.
Does brain structure affect intelligence?
While studying human development and how the cortical thinning of the brain occurs during adolescence, greater intelligence is suggested among neurotypical children. With this in mind, there could be a link to higher intelligence in some autistic individuals.
With the acceleration noted in some autistic children, higher cognitive ability is possible because of the rate of neurons and synapses firing and being pruned. Since it seems quicker in people with an ASD diagnosis, in theory it can mean higher IQ and cognitive skills.
Intelligence is typically measured by the number of neurons that fire in response to early learning and experiences throughout life. For people with an average intelligence, the synapsis wouldn’t fire as quickly as the study in Autism as a Disorder of High Intelligence suggested.
How can autistic people get the support they need?
There are many therapies and supports available for individuals with autism, their families, and caregivers. Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) and applied behavior analysis (ABA) both center around behaviors, cognition, and the ability for people with autism spectrum disorder to navigate their world.
Skills that are taught and honed in therapy sessions could directly impact the way intelligence is expressed. Therapists can help guide the individual into expanding interests, like watching videos only on a computer screen, to discussing, understanding, and participating in another activity someone else may enjoy.
There truly are so many therapies available for autistic children and adults that can help nonverbal and minimally verbal individuals, those with intellectual disabilities, developmental disorders, limited cognitive skills, and more.
Since autism is a spectrum diagnosis, there are a number of diagnoses that can be paired within the initial assessment. When looking to help strengthen overall intelligence, along with the person’s ability to show their intelligence in different ways, speaking with a doctor is the best first step.
How can an autistic child’s strengths be honed and boost their intelligence?
There are so many ways to help an autistic child boost areas using their strengths and interests. The author Shawna Wingert, who is a special needs mom and has written about interest-led and strength-based learning, has shared some ideas.
Although Wingert focuses on homeschooling, her tips and tricks can also be utilized in the classroom. Her thoughts in her book, Different by Design Learning, help lay a foundation for learning about the student and their interests and what they are learning about and struggling in.
Parents, caregivers, teachers, or whoever uses the book and does the groundwork with the individual, have a layout of what the individual’s interests and strengths are. Wingert states that, when someone spends time in their area of strength, they grow stronger in their area of weakness and all around.
Work to do at home
As discussed, just because a child is diagnosed with autism doesn’t always mean they have an intellectual disability and limited cognitive ability. On the contrary, there are even those savants who become experts in what interests them.
So, as a parent and/or caregiver, it would be great to really get to know the child and what seems to drive and motivate them. What strengths do they have that could help them in other areas?
Is the child fluent in math and science and having a hard time at story or reading time? If the child enjoys dinosaurs and math, there are an array of books written that could be read to or by the child about dinosaurs.
There are also pages upon pages of ideas on sites like Pinterest where parents and educators can get ideas for integrating interests into areas that need help. There are games that can be played, books read, projects created, and the list continues on.
At the end of the day, some children with autism have higher intelligence than others. But wherever your child may be intellectually, working with them to strengthen certain skills is beneficial and it can be helpful to incorporate something they enjoy and know a lot about.
Invitation to play
Do you like board games? Does your child enjoy forest animals? There is a game that can combine those two!
Does your child tell you amazing stories and create worlds out of clay, paper, or any other medium, but struggle talking to other children? There are designated groups of people who make up stories and create their own worlds, they even make them virtual for those unable to meet face to face.
The bottom line is that playing and learning new things about the child and their interests can draw them further into learning new skills and strengthening other areas that include increasing overall intelligence.
The measure of intelligence can be so blurry at times and making sure the individual learns as a whole in a way that is engaging for them is what really matters. Also, it can be more fun learning something that may be a challenge when it’s enjoyable.
Remember, there are new techniques being developed to measure intelligence spectrum wide, so it’s good to focus on strength building in areas that need it; just be sure to have fun during the process!
Arthur, G. (1952). The Arthur adaptation of the Leiter International Performance Scale. The Psychological Service Center Press. https://doi.org/10.1037/13224-000
Crespi, B. (2016). Autism as a Disorder of Higher Intelligence. US National Library of Medicine national Institutes of Health. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4927579/
Goldstein, G., Saklofske, D. (2010). The Wechsler Intelligence Scales in the Assessment of Psychopathology. https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/medicine-and-dentistry/wechsler-intelligence-scale
Wingert, S. (2019). Different By Design Learning: Strength Based Learning Plans for Nontraditional Learners. (1st ed.). Wingert. https://differentbydesignlearning.com/