Intelligence Quotient

IQ tests are designed to determine whether a person is developing within ‘normal range’ or is ‘slow’ or ‘stuck’ in his or her development.

As autistic people live in a different perceptual world from non-autistics, they develop different cognitive mechanisms and styles. So what do we really measure with the standard IQ tests that do not take into account all these differences? It is as if we tested the IQ of a blind person by asking him to name the colours of the objects in front of him. Even using his hands (tactile perception) he would not be able to pass the test successfully. Does it mean that he would be diagnosed as intellectually disabled?

Communication Issues in Autism and Asperger Syndrome: Do we speak the same language?

As autistic individuals have different information-processing strategies and styles, they might struggle with tasks presented in a conventional, non-autistic way. For example, a child working in ‘mono’ may be presented with multisensory information; another child can understand much more than she is able to express with words or gestures; still another child who has trouble speaking and poor motor skills will not be able to show what he knows/what he can do, etc. Besides, while developing along a very different track from non-autistic people, autistic children acquire a whole range of adaptations, compensations and strategies on the way.

Recently, some researchers have started developing (or adapting existing) tests to assess the cognitive potential of nonverbal or minimally verbal people with ‘severe autism’. Some test different techniques (for instance, eye tracking or brain imaging) to reveal hidden abilities that standard IQ tests may overlook or underestimate.

In addition to inadequate tests the matter is complicated (and aggravated) by ‘unprofessional’ professionals: those who are inexperienced and lacking knowledge about autism but who are in the position to evaluate an autistic individual’s abilities and deficits.

Obviously, some autistic individuals may be intellectually disabled, just as some non-autistic people are. However, the poor results of the IQ tests may be accounted for by different reasons. Due to certain perceptual and cognitive differences, the autistic person either may not understand what is expected from her or may be unable to access ‘mental database’ at the moment of testing. Besides, very often smart autistic individuals are bored or even offended by the examiner’s questions and may give incorrect answers on purpose or refuse to cooperate altogether (as happened with the autistic boy described above).

Communication Issues in Autism and Asperger Syndrome: Do we speak the same language?

A good explanation of what might influence the score of the standard (non-autistic) tests in autism is given by Temple Grandin, whose intelligence cannot be questioned:

Five years ago I took a series of tests to determine my abilities and handicaps. On the Hiskey Nebraska Spatial Relations test, I got an average score because it was a timed speed test. I am not a fast thinker; it takes time for visual images to form…

As a child I got scores of 120 and 137 on the Wechsler. I had superior scores in Memory for Sentences, Picture Vocabulary, and Antonyms-Synonyms on the Woodcock-Johnson. On Memory for Numbers I beat the test by repeating the numbers out loud, I have an extremely poor long-term memory for things such as phone numbers unless I can convert them to visual images. For example, the number 65 is retirement age, and I imagine somebody in Sun City, Arizona. If I am unable to take notes I cannot remember what people tell me unless I translate the verbal information to visual pictures…

I got a second-grade score on the Woodcock Johnson Blending subtest where I had to identify slowly sounded-out words. The Visual Auditory Learning subtest was another disaster. I had to memorize the meaning of arbitrary symbols, such as a triangle means ‘horse’, and read a sentence composed of symbols. I could only learn the ones where I was able to make a picture for each symbol. For example, I imagined the triangle as a flag carried by a horse and rider.

Foreign languages were almost impossible. Concept Formation was another test with fourth-grade results. The name of this test really irks me, because I am good at forming concepts in the real world. My ability to visualize broad unifying concepts from hundreds of journal articles has enabled me to outguess the ‘experts’ on many livestock subjects. The test involved picking out a concept such as ‘large, yellow’ and then finding it in another set of cards. The problem was, I could not hold the concept in my mind while I looked at the cards. If I had been allowed to write the concept down, I would have done much better. (Grandin 1996)

Communication Issues in Autism and Asperger Syndrome: Do we speak the same language?

Measuring non-autistic people by this [autistic] type of development would often find them failing miserably and appearing to be thoroughly ‘subnormal’ by ‘autistic’ standards.

Williams 1996, p.235

As different situations cause information overload of different sorts and to different degrees (including the provocation of even ‘good’ emotions, for example) then someone who shifted between one of these adaptations and the next might be found to be distinctly different in different sorts of company, in different environments and when confronted with different types of processing and communication demands.

These fluctuations are also very difficult to cater for in terms of test designs (based on a non-autistic, integrated, non-mono, perceptual, cognitive, nitive, emotional, linguistic and social reality). Crude testing based on assumptions of a hidden lesser-developed, non-autistic, reality within `autistic’ people produce, in my view, no more valid results than some of the archaic and culturally-biased intelligence tests of once upon a time. Those seeking to test people with ‘autism’ might begin by daring to imagine that these people may not be lesser-developed versions of non-autistic people but, rather, people who HAVE developed, sometimes substantially, along a very different track from non-autistic people. Looking at how ‘autistic’ people measure up to non-autistic people according to a non-autistic developmental path tells the researcher nothing about how far the same person may have developed a whole range of adaptations, tions, compensations and strategies along an ‘autistic’ track.

Measuring non-autistic people by this type of development would often find them failing miserably and appearing to be thoroughly ‘subnormal’ normal’ by ‘autistic’ standards.

Having a ‘dysfunctional’ or ‘abnormal’ brain organisation does not dictate the level of one’s intelligence. Nor does it even dictate the level of one’s functioning, as functioning is subject to a wide selection of adaptations tions and shifts. That people without ‘autism’, with integrated systems, need to learn consciously how to read and write or play music, do mathematics, design, paint and so on, does not mean that people with autism, with poorly integrated systems, cannot learn subconsciously and have this subconscious learning triggered under the right conditions – conditions requiring fewer connections and less direct interaction (such as writing).

Autism: An Inside-Out Approach: An Innovative Look at the ‘Mechanics’ of ‘Autism’ and its Developmental ‘Cousins’

Reviewing IQ scores from tests throughout an individual’s childhood, Professor Digby Tantam (2013) has observed considerable variation even if the same tests are used, suggesting that it may reflect the circumstances of the test, such as the relationship with the tester or whether or not the testee is depressed or anxious at the time of the test.

Communication Issues in Autism and Asperger Syndrome: Do we speak the same language?

For decades, we were told that nearly all autistic people mostly have a low level of intelligence – a low IQ. This is a big part of being diagnosed with a ‘learning disability’ or ‘intellectual disability’ (shortened to LD or ID)

This was based on a misunderstanding of autism, and a misunderstanding of which IQ tests work for us.

Then, there’s how we measure IQ for autistic people. We’d often been using the wrong tests, it seems. Using a Raven’s test, the IQ results for autistic people are way higher than we’d realised, for many. Here’s a chart where people realised the error. Bit technical, so feel free to skip this explanation: Four sets of bars. Each shows a different IQ test. First two bars in each group of four is the results of female and male autistic people. Second two bars in each group of four is the results of female and male non-autistic people (‘controls’).

The first three IQ tests showed a whacking great difference between autistic people and the non-autistic ones. But look at that Raven’s test. Hardly any difference at all. Have we been accidentally putting a lot of autistic people into the ‘intellectual disability’ group when in fact their IQ is pretty normal?

Ann’s Autism Blog: Autism and IQ. Oh my, we had this one wrong, eh?

Many of the conclusions were based on intelligence tests that tend to overestimate disability in autistic people. “Our knowledge is based on pretty bad data,” she says.

That is because testing for intelligence in autistic people is hard. The average person can sit down and take a verbally administered, timed test without too many problems. But for an autistic person with limited language capability, who might be easily distracted by sensory information, this task is very hard. The most commonly administered intelligence test, the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children (WISC) almost seems designed to flunk an autistic person: it is a completely verbal, timed test that relies heavily on cultural and social knowledge. It asks questions 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?” and “What is the thing to do when you cut your finger?”

The Hidden Potential of Autistic Kids – Scientific American

One of the reasons, why IQ tests are flawed is that it can underestimate or overestimate the abilities and challenges that autistic people actually have.

Another big reason why intelligence tests are inaccurate measures, is that autistic people usually don’t test well.  These tests require a person to sit in a room for a long period of time and have questions that contain a lot of verbal information.  The testing environment may also trigger sensory  issues in some autistic individuals.  Some also don’t have the attention span and cooperation to do the tasks the test examiner wants them to complete .  When I first got diagnosed, I took a verbal IQ test in which I did terribly on due to my limited language capacities.  The examiner who was a young graduate student mistakenly thought that I had an intellectual disability based of my test results.  When my mother talked with the head psychologist, she said I was given the wrong test.  This shows how the structure of the tests themselves can not accurately predict the true intelligence levels of autistic people.

Redefining Normal: A Young Woman’s Journey with Autism: Why IQ scores are erroneous for autistic people

“We couldn’t assess her reading skills in the way you need to do for a study like this, but she was clearly able to read and write.”

Children like this are unlikely to be included in cognitive and behavioral studies that focus increasingly on ‘high-functioning’ individuals with autism. Most studies define high-functioning children as those with an IQ above 70 or 80, but this is problematic for a number of reasons, say some scientists.

Researchers don’t all use the same test to measure intelligence, for one thing, and even when they do, IQ thresholds often vary among studies.

The assumption underlying the use of high IQ as a synonym for high functioning is also suspect because social and communicative abilities may have a far greater impact on an individual’s daily interactions.

“Crudely taking IQ as a metric to divide up individuals can be misleading, because high-functioning sounds like you are doing really well, when in fact you’re not,” says cognitive psychologist Tony Charman, professor of autism education at the University of London.

Regardless of the test, IQ may not be the best indicator of the ability of a person with autism to navigate the real world. “An individual’s level of functioning can more impacted by co-morbid mental health problems than by IQ — and this is particularly true for adults,” says Peter Szatmari, head of child psychiatry and behavioral neurosciences at McMaster University in Ontario.

IQ scores not a good measure of function in autism | Spectrum | Autism Research News

“There’s so much change that the IQ tests can’t capture the diversity of kids.

IQ scores not a good measure of function in autism | Spectrum | Autism Research News

The [DSM-IV]…states that 75% of these [non-verbal] individuals function at a mentally retarded level based on IQ scores. This sets up a vicious cycle: we expect less from these kids, so they receive fewer opportunities to learn. We don’t challenge them to learn because we’ve already decided they can’t. We test these children for IQ, using testing instruments that are largely ill-suited to this population, and then point to their low scores as confirmation of impaired mental functioning.

…it’s time we rethink nonverbal individuals with autism and realize that the preconceived notions under which we’ve been relating to and educating this population over the last twenty years may be flat-out wrong.

Grandin 2008, p.85

After Binet died in 1911, his work was taken up and developed by others. In 1912, a German psychologist, William Stern, changed the statistical method by which a child’s final score was calculated, dividing the mental by the chronological age rather than subtracting from it; the resulting measurement is what we have come to call the Intelligence Quotient, or IQ.

Letters To My Weird Sisters: On Autism and Feminism

While Stern changed the way in which results were reached, other psychologists extended the scope of their interpretation. Binet had never attempted to establish or support any theory about the nature of intelligence; he was not developing a method of ranking the intelligence of normal children; however low a child’s score, he never intended it to be taken as an indication of innate and/or permanent incapacity. But IQ would be taken up and used for precisely this purpose. Henry Herbert Goddard and Lewis Terman brought Binet’s scale to the USA, developed it into the Stanford–Binet scale and put it to work ranking 1.75 million American soldiers during the First World War; they assigned each man they tested what they took to be a permanent and inherent numerical value, and used the results as support for the theory of innate, inherited intelligence. They then went further, suggesting that the results of mass IQ testing could be used to construct not only hierarchies of individuals, but also hierarchies of groups. Over the following decades, IQ testing would be cited as evidence that men were more intelligent than women, white people were more intelligent than black and brown people, middle-class people were more intelligent than working-class people, and white gentiles were more intelligent than Jews. These researchers believed that these differences between groups were not only stable over a lifetime, but over generations too.

Letters To My Weird Sisters: On Autism and Feminism

As described by Chapman (1988), one of the most important legacies of IQ tests is the ideology that “intelligence [can] be measured by tests and expressed in a single numerical ratio” (p. 92). In this way, tests have a material value, but also an ideological one; tests have come to represent who is and who is not smart.

DisCrit—Disability Studies and Critical Race Theory in Education

But what are we measuring? Human worth cannot be placed on such a scale.

Ann Memmott

Further reading,