I am not fond of intelligence testing for my son with autism, but it is required by the school district since he receives services. These tests rely on strong verbal communication and auditory processing skills, which are a challenge for Jack and many others with autism.
Jack had not been tested for years, so our Special Education Consultant, Dr. John, reached out to me a few weeks ago. He has known Jack for seven years, so it was in my child’s best interest to have Dr. John administer the test. Besides, Jack loves Dr. John; he is an amazing human being. He is a true advocate for children on the spectrum, with the right mix of science and compassion and a keen sense of what’s best for each individual child.
I sat in Dr. John’s office with Jack while he administered the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children (WISC-V). Unlike other standardized IQ tests, the WISC-V includes a section for visual-spatial aptitude. Dr. John felt this would best represent Jack’s abilities, but he had no idea that we were about to be blown away.
Jack was whizzing through the visual-spatial section with flying colors. Dr. John and I were glancing up at each other with a slight air of disbelief at his performance as the test continued. He flew through it, solving puzzles with such speed and accuracy we were somewhat awestruck.
And then, the last part of the test in the visual-spatial section really surprised us as Jack completed the final task.
Dr. John looked up at me and said with a chuckle and disbelief, “In all the years I have been testing people, not one person has ever solved this last puzzle. Not only did Jack solve it, he did so in 62 seconds, breaking the record of 90 seconds.”
He looked at Jack and said, “Jack, you my friend, are a visual super genius.”
I left Dr. John’s office determined to discover more about visual-spatial abilities and how this strength could be cultivated. Jack is 12 years old—he has limited verbal abilities, and he spends free time perseverating on visual stimuli. I knew, as his mother, that he was bright, but now I had something tangible to explore.
I received Dr. John’s full report of the IQ test the next day and I was not surprised to see that Jack scored very, very low in verbal communication. He was in the 1st percentile, which meant 99% of the population tested scored higher than him. He was very low in all categories except the visual category.
Jack scored in the 99.9th percentile for visual-spatial intelligence. That number represents all children and individuals, typical and otherwise. In other words, it is measured against the general population. Wow!
I went into research mode and I love what I found. There are vast resources about visual-spatial learners and a new term that I discovered: twice exceptional or 2e. Twice exceptional refers to children that are intellectually gifted with some form of disability. These children are considered exceptional both because of their gifts and their special needs.
It dawned on me in that moment how powerful labels are. There’s something very positive about the word “exceptional,” and I wanted more parents to know about this label and how to discover their own child’s brilliance.
I suspect that a large percentage of individuals with autism are twice exceptional. About 10 years ago, I read an article about brain architecture, high intelligence, and autism. While I don’t remember the exact details, there was a direct correlation between certain receptors in the brain and high intelligence. It was, in fact, this particular architecture that predisposed a person to autism.
I also discovered this book: Bright Not Broken, Gifted Kids, ADHD, and Autism—Why Twice Exceptional Children are Stuck and How to Help Them, By D. Kennedy, R. Banks with Temple Grandin (Jossey-Bass, 2011).
Being twice exceptional is packed with a unique set of challenges, but also with wonderful possibilities. So how do you figure out an individual’s strengths? There are two key areas to focus on: communication and behaviors.
Communication is paramount to understanding intelligence and potential, particularly in non-verbal individuals. I get goose bumps every time I read a new book or article about a non-verbal person with autism who finally breaks their silence by communicating by letter board or typing. Not only are these seemingly severely-affected people intellectually intact, some are quite brilliant.
First and foremost, presume intellect. Don’t assume a child with autism doesn’t understand. It’s quite the contrary. Do everything you can to develop a way to communicate with your child.
Next, observe your child. Behaviors hold clues to many things in autism, and viewing them through a new lens will provide valuable information. Education and learning can be tailored based on open learning channels. The one size fits all approach in education does not work well for the general population, and with autism, it is especially important to individualize education.
To simplify the process, consider how learning takes place. There are two primary learning channels, visual-spatial and auditory-sequential, and two secondary learning channels, tactile and kinesthetic. Is it any surprise that our classrooms are largely set up for auditory-sequential learning? And that up to 30% of the population are visual-spatial learners?
We all use varying degrees of each channel, but in autism there can be strong clues about dominance that can be found by observing behaviors.
Ask yourself: How does the child interact with the environment?
Here are some examples based on behaviors:
- Sam enters a room and immediately moves from the couch to the rug to the chair. He touches everything and seems to linger for a few moments, taking in the sensations. He is carrying his beloved, worn-out blanket, which he refuses to leave at home. When someone speaks, he doesn’t appear to notice, nor does it appear to bother him when things get loud around him.
This child is highly tactile and kinesthetic, and he seems to also have a moderately open auditory channel. He doesn’t exhibit the severe sensitivity to sound that some do.
- Casey walks into a room and immediately fixates on the patterns of the wallpaper. She also loves watching the ceiling fan whirl round and round. Then she sits down on the floor, staring at the fibers of the carpet for long periods of time. When someone enters she seems to crouch into herself a little and she covers her ears when someone speaks. This child is highly visual and is closed at the moment to auditory input.
- Josh enters a room and goes immediately to the table. He touches it and begins to bite it. He seems fascinated with the hardness of it and continues to explore it. When someone talks to him, he tries to answer. His language is limited but he gets some words out. Josh also loves listening to music, and he takes his portable CD player with him almost everywhere he goes. Josh is highly tactile and has an open auditory channel.
Autism is a spectrum because there are infinite combinations of a differently-abled sensory system. Creating a learning environment that honors the child’s unique sensory system is the first step to helping the child connect and learn.
You can further discern strengths by asking these questions:
- What does your child gravitate towards?
- How does he spend his free time?
- What is your child’s special talent?
- What seems to soothe him?
- What seems to bother him?
Observe. Make a list and go after your child’s strengths.
After discovering Jack’s strengths, I found a program for him that actually takes his visual-spatial strengths to train up his verbal and auditory pathways. The program was developed by Dr. Cherie Florance, a mother and brain researcher. Jack enjoys the program because I use visual cues and support in all learning, making it easy for him to follow along. Not only is it effective, it is a lot of fun for both of us, and this further deepens our relationship and his ability to connect with me.
By focusing on strengths you change the dynamic to what’s possible. This in and of itself is life-changing.
This article was featured in Issue 54 – Surviving Family Challenges