Study Finds Inteligence in Autistics Underestimated

Autistic children are typically set aside as “low functioning” or mentally retarded, particularly those who have poor speaking skills, as many do. On the other hand, when autistics do show exceptional abilities— for example, hyper visual discrimination and memory for detail—their brilliance is dismissed as an aberration, mere symptoms of a higher order cognitive deficit. They regularly receive a backhanded promotion to “idiot savant.”

The theoretical justification being, that typical autistic skills are not true intelligence at all, but just low-level perceptual abilities.

According to this view, autistics are missing the big picture, since they are obsessed with detail, forest for the trees, etc.

Challenging the Stigma

But are autistics really incapable of abstraction and integration and other high-level thinking? You might be surprised, but the view has never been meticulously tested. Recently, a team of researchers in Canada suspected that previous tests might have been verbally baised and determined idea should be explored in the lab.

Led by psychologist Laurent Mottron of the University of Montreal, the team gave both autistic kids and normal kids two of the most popular IQ tests used in schools. The two tests are both highly regarded, but very different.

The WISC relies heavily on language, which is why the psychologists were suspicious of it.

The other of the two tests, known as the Ravens Progressive Matrices, is seen as the top test of whats called “fluid intelligence,” the ability to infer rules, set and manage goals, and do high-level abstraction thinking.

This test basically puts forward complicated arrays of patterns with one missing. Test takers are then required to choose the one which logically would complete the series. The test stresses good memory, focused attention and other “executive skills,” but—unlike the WISC—it doesnt require much language ability.

True Intelligence Comes Through

The theory here was that the autistic kids real intelligence just could possibly show through, if they could only get beyond the language shortfall. Which is exactly what happened.

The difference between their scores on the WISC and the Ravens test was stunning. While not a single autistic child scored in the “high intelligence” range of the WISC, fully a third did on the Ravens. Likewise, a third of the autistics had WISC scores in the mentally retarded range, whereas only one in 20 scored that low on the Ravens test. The normal kids had basically the same results on both tests.

The team ran the same experiment with autistic and normal adults, with the same result. As they report in the August 2007 issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, these findings speak not only to the level of autistic intelligence but to the nature of autistic intelligence.

While it may probably be true that autistics possess extraordinary perceptual skills, and also that they use unique cognitive pathways for problem solving, their intelligence clearly goes along way past rote memory and perception, and includes complex reasoning ability. Which won’t come as any surprise to Michelle Dawson, one of the scientific collaborators on this study; she is also autistic.

Intelligence Underestimated

In the study a sample of 38 autistic children was assessed on the Raven’s Progressive Matrices. Their scores were, on the average, 30 percentile points, and in some cases, up to more than 70 percentile points, higher than their scores on the Wechsler scales of intelligence.

A sample of “normally” 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. The authors conclude intelligence has been underestimated in autistics.

photo by Avolore Creative Commons Attribution License