Has autistic intelligence been underestimated?

Has autistic intelligence been underestimated through the years? I think many of you know what my answer is going to be (YES! of course), but I actually have a scientific study that backs up that claim that I (and many others) have known all along.

I discovered the study, entitled The Level and Nature of Autistic Intelligence (available online through the journal Psychological Science, on the Autism pages of About.com in the article Once Again, the World Discovers That People with Autism are Bright but Different. There is also a discussion of the study on the Science Daily website.

The study was written by Michelle Dawson, Isabelle Soulières, Morton Ann Gernsbacher, and Laurent Mottron. Here’s the abstract of the paper:

Autistics are presumed to be characterized by cognitive impairment, and their cognitive strengths (e.g., in Block Design performance) are frequently interpreted as low-level by-products of high-level deficits, not as direct manifestations of intelligence. Recent attempts to identify the neuroanatomical and neurofunctional signature of autism have been positioned on this universal, but untested, assumption. We therefore assessed a broad sample of 38 autistic children on the preeminent test of fluid intelligence, Raven’s Progressive Matrices. Their scores were, on average, 30 percentile points, and in some cases more than 70 percentile points, higher than their scores on the Wechsler scales of intelligence. Typically developing control children showed no such discrepancy, and a similar contrast was observed when a sample of autistic adults was compared with a sample of nonautistic adults. We conclude that intelligence has been underestimated in autistics.

Unfortunately, you must be a member of the Association of Psychological Sciences to get the article from their website. Another option, the one I’m pursuing, is to get a copy from your local public library (or school library, if you are a student).

I should have it in a couple of weeks, I’ll post more thoughts once I’ve actually read it.


Author: gBRETTmiller

I'm not lost, I'm wondering

9 thoughts on “Has autistic intelligence been underestimated?”

  1. I wonder what would turnout if the level of research into how the levels of underestimation by people affect those on the autistic spectrum. I mean I’m not a great fan of over-estimation either. But it’s reasonably safe to say that if you keep on telling someone they’re not competent or lower the bar and expectations significantly then you can create a “glass ceiling” just as with feminism. Interesting.


  2. In any event, IQ tests do not measure intelligence if what we mean by intelligence is the biological potential of the brain to figure things out. What they measure is current knowledge and current ability to perform specific tasks. There are entire countries that are classified as mentally retarded, but we know that, given the same cultural exposure the citizens would score just as highly as those in neighboring countries.


  3. There are entire countries that are classified as mentally retardedIn what scale?The RPM test is supposed to be culture-free, although I don’t know to what extent you can practice for it.


  4. My son is almost 4 years old and somewhat verbal, but it’s still hard for me to tell when I’m underestimating or overestimating his ability to understand what we tell him. It seems to me that whenever he’s motivated and interested, he can do ANYTHING, and learn extremely fast. However when he doesn’t care, he’ll rather focus on something else and loses an opportunity for learning. But of course there are times when he SEEMS not to be paying attention, when he in fact is actively listening. Only time will tell if he has a major cognitive impairment or not.


  5. AAM said, “It seems to me that whenever he’s motivated and interested, he can do ANYTHING, and learn extremely fast.” This is true, I think, for everyone and is just one more example of how our autistic children, though different from their non-autistic peers, are very much the same as those same peers. From a parenting perspective, the challenge is the same its just the starting conditions and methods that may need to be adjusted.


  6. Leo, you’re right, people – especially children – will inevitably live up (or down) to the expectations placed on them. This is true of any child, autistic or not.


  7. jypsy,Thanks for the link. Short paper, but very interesting reading. Some very eye-catching quotes, too, such as: “superior performance by autistics is frequently considered to be a side effect of abnormal neuroanatomical function, rather than a reflection of genuine human intelligence.” I’m also curious how exactly a question like, “What is the thing to do if you find an envelope in the street that is sealed, addressed, and has a new stamp on it?” relates to intelligence. That seems to be more of a “has your programming been successful” than “what are you capable of figuring out”.


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