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How IQ Tests Underestimate Autistic Students’ Intelligence

How IQ Tests Underestimate Autistic Students’ Intelligence
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Some types of IQ tests may wrongly label autistic children as having intellectual disabilities, say two Florida researchers. Douglas Carothers of Florida Gulf Coast University and Ronald Taylor of Florida Atlantic University presented their findings at the annual convention for the Council for Exceptional Children. As many as 70 percent of autistic children have also been diagnosed with intellectual disabilities.

But, as Carothers and Taylor point out, many IQ tests rely on children responding verbally. As Carothers says on Ed Week’s On Special Education blog:

…many children with autism don’t respond to verbal stimuli and may speak little themselves, but some psychologists expect them to respond to questions on an IQ test out loud. If asked to create a sequence from a series of pictures in order to test their social skills, “they may be more interested in the pieces than the whole,” Carothers continued.

In fact, the examiner’s manual of one IQ test, the WISC-IV, cautions that “it is important not to attribute low performance on a cognitive test to low intellectual ability when, in fact, it may be attributable to physical, language, or sensory difficulties.”

Carothers also notes that IQ tests administered to autistic children by people who don’t know them can “pose a challenge.” An examiner who does not know a child may be unaware of subtle and idiosyncratic ways that a child communicates; new situations and interacting with yet unknown-people are often especially difficult for autistic individuals. Add the stress and anxiety that a child may feel in finding her or himself in a test situation and the likelihood of her or him not being able to demonstrate her or his abilities is very high.

Carothers and Taylor’s observations, which they will be publishing in a forthcoming paper, really resonate with me. My teenage son Charlie has scored low on all the IQ tests he has taken. He has very limited speaking ability (he talks in phrases of one to five words that usually contain nouns and concrete words — he doesn’t, for instance, express emotions in speech) and reads a few words (single words, not full sentences). At school, he has no classes in subjects like social studies, science, math and language arts: Charlie’s curriculum is entirely centered around skills of daily living and on vocational skills. Since the IQ tests psychologists at clinics and school districts have given him are based mostly on language, we’ve stopped being surprised at him scoring low.

I am obviously biased as I am Charlie’s mother — but, despite all this, it is clear that Charlie is quite intelligent. He has a phenomenal memory for places, voices, people and music. It is impossible to gauge how much he understands of what is said around him but he clearly understands much more language than he can himself say, based on his responses on hearing conversations in his earshot. He arranged the three car keys on the floor in the configuration in the photo above: He has a marked ability to create and see patterns as well as an awareness of shapes that recalls that of autistic artists Jessica Park and Alex Masket.

Some researchers have pressed to have autistic individuals evaluated using other tests such as the Raven’s Progressive Matrices. A 2011 PLoS ONE study found that individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome had much higher IQ scores with this test.

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7:22AM PST on Feb 3, 2013

Thank you for sharing.

6:07PM PST on Dec 26, 2012

I do think autism has nothing to do with intelligence and it probably stems from older times when we knew less about the many ways people communicate. I have NDL, which is basically the opposite problem of what your son has but I agree that he very well could frustrated! I'm glad he is in a place where his needs are met now. I learn a lot differently than most so I have suffered very much from the public school system.

2:41PM PST on Dec 20, 2012

We can't place everyone into the same category of intelligence. Autistic people may not be too good at communicating but they could have something else that they're really good at like art, science or music.

3:43AM PST on Nov 21, 2012

I didn't find out that I have Asperger's until I was in my sixties. I was misdiagnosed as schizophrenic in my late teens. I disliked kindergarten. First through sixth was ok. I learned to read the first time I was allowed to open a book to read "a cat and a rat" after a few weeks of reciting "b buh, c cuh" etc. and then got away with spending most of my time in class just reading books. Secondary school was hell because I got so much homework, I was forced to take it home to work on and my mother got into it--insisting on correcting it and making me copy it over with her corrections--which I thought was grossly unfair to my teachers and my classmates who I had to compete with for grades and a major insult to me and it deprived me of a chance to learn how to proofread myself.

4:17AM PDT on Aug 6, 2012

good to know, thanks!

12:47PM PDT on Jun 28, 2012

I knew a boy in school who had "autistic tendencies" and he was one of the smartest and intellectual individuals I have ever known

1:37PM PDT on Apr 20, 2012


As IQ test are mostly based on writing, reading, speaking, they do not take in account any other form of intelligence.
For exemple, one said that dolphins are intelligent, but how a man could know something about an another intelligence than this one he is considering.
This is the same for autistic persons. Abilities and cleverness have to be considered from a viewpoint.

6:30AM PDT on Apr 19, 2012

The word autistic itself means "living within oneself." People with autism have difficulty communicating with the outside world, in spite of the fact that many have normal or even superior intelligence. The short documentary, "Autism is a World," shows a great example of how wide this dichotomy can be (here's a clip:

Stephen Hawking has a physical disability, but thanks to the right technology, he can continue to provide us with the insights of his thoughts. How many great minds have been denied that opportunity - and continue to lack a voice - because those of us blessed with normal communication and understanding have not yet found ways to help them speak?

3:07PM PDT on Apr 17, 2012

IQ scores do not always determine intelligence. An autistic student doesn't communicate verbally and often is not exposed to the same training and information that the average child is. I find it sad that test scores are used to judge children.

8:41AM PDT on Apr 17, 2012


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