Intelligence In Autism: The Impact Of Processing Issues

An apple on a pile of books, next to children's alphabet blocks and coloured pencils on a teachers desk in a school.
Photo by ​Element5 Digital​ on ​Unsplash​

Intelligence in Autism is quite confusing and often difficult to measure. We have spent a lot of time convincing autistic people that they are not stupid, but actually they are quite intelligent. We do this by reminding them what they are good at and generally showing them what they are capable of by looking at their key strengths. All too often, they have not got on well at school and think that because they did not do well at school, they are not intelligent.

This begs the question of how well school exams measure intelligence, especially intelligence in autism. But that is beyond the scope of this blog post.

Suffice to say that parents often perceive their children as very intelligent, but when they undergo a cognitive assessment, the results may show average intelligence or below. (Average intelligence is a score of 100). This does not necessarily mean that parents are looking at their children through rose-tinted spectacles!

A majority of autistic people also have learning disability, and occasionally an autistic person diagnosed with learning disability can go on to be successful in getting a PhD! Learning disability is defined as an IQ below 70, and received wisdom is that you need an IQ of at least 130 to be able to get a PhD – the highest academic qualification available. A PhD is a research qualification for which you need to create recognised brand new (academic) knowledge of some sort. This strongly suggests that the IQ tests are not always accurate for autistic people: the results can be misleading if the person’s individual difficulties due to autism are not considered.

Research has shown that autism often comes with genes that correlate to high intelligence! So why are so many autistic people being categorised with a very low IQ and therefore a learning disability?

What is going on?

Someone once came to us, let’s call her Chantelle – ​her profile is on our website​. Chantelle was desperate for a job and had been around all the different organisations in the area who had funding to help people into a workplace. However, none were able to help – not even those who were specialists in helping autistic adults.

Before we determine how to help people, we try to work out what is going on and what the barriers are. We could see that Chantelle was intelligent with a good imagination, but we could not find that intelligence. We tried many different kinds of tests and tasks on her, but she couldn’t do a single one of them.

Eventually, we worked out that Chantelle processes all forms of incoming information slowly. As a result, she had developed a coping mechanism of rote learning everything. She did not attempt to understand instructions for a task, but simply just guessed at the answer. She had no concept of problem solving or thinking through a problem.

So, we taught Chantelle how to think, critically and logically – to be able to identify when things didn’t add up, and how to solve problems. Her intelligence, probably in the high average range, became apparent. This helped Chantelle to develop better coping strategies. It did not change her underlying processing difficulty, but it resulted in very dramatic improvements to her quality of life.

It remains the case that if Chantelle had a full cognitive test, she would probably score in the learning disability range, simply because it takes her too long to understand instructions and work out what she is expected to do. Her difficulties cause her a lot of anxiety because she cannot cope when something unexpected happens because she is unable to process it.

This example explains how someone who scores in the learning disability range on an IQ test can go on to get a PhD. If someone has great difficulty processing what is going on around them, struggles to process speech and cannot hold a conversation, it does not mean that they do not have a high level of intelligence. If they get the opportunity to learn about something that interests them, there is no reason why they can’t get a PhD, if they have the ability to read and express themselves in writing.

However, just like the general population, very few will go on to get a PhD! Chantelle will not be one of them: like most of the population, she is simply not that way minded.

IQ Tests do not reflect intelligence when significant processing issues are present.

The problem is that most autistic children, whose true intelligence is not reflected in IQ tests because of processing difficulty, do not get the opportunity to demonstrate their intelligence at school because education systems do not cope well with these kinds of difficulties. In fact, we have not yet read a report from an educational or clinical psychologist which recognises the impact of processing difficulties on learning in a mainstream education setting. These reports do measure processing ability, but they don’t comment that the processing difficulty is likely to impact on the scores for the other tests and that therefore the measured IQ is very likely an underestimate.

This means that children do not get recognition for what they are achieving despite their processing difficulty. Parents have an uphill struggle to get the intelligence of their child recognised and subsequently can’t get them into the right school so that they have access to learning opportunities that are appropriate to their true level of intelligence and academic ability.

There are other reasons why it is difficult if not impossible to measure the intelligence of an autistic individual, but this will be the subject of future blog posts.

Aspiedent can Help

We have a service that helps people understand their intelligence in Autism and in particular any processing, thinking or other issues they may have. This is part of an ​autism profile. Example autism profiles can be found on our website. Autism Profiles are potentially life changing for the better because they help the both the person and those around them to understand their individual autistic difficulties.

An Autism profile can assess whether potential study choices are likely to work out or not. Similarly, they can help with careers advice. They can be very beneficial for children.

If you have any questions about the content of this blog post, get in touch.