In line with recent brain imaging studies that find that autistic brains operate fundamentally differently from non-autistic brains (which I talked about in another post), autistic children are intelligent in ways that are different from children without autism. Scientific American has a recent feature on the hidden potential of autistic kids that current IQ tests understate or miss entirely.

The feature has some key  points that I want to highlight here. These key points bring out key questions about what we should consider intelligence, and how we can choose toy and play activities that best promote the intellectual growth of autistic kids.

1. Statistics cited about the percentage of autistics who are mentally retarded aren’t strongly grounded

Research Meredyth Elenson at Willamette University found that sources for often cited statistics saying that  70-80% of the autistic population is mental retarded are inconclusive. She also found that most of the conclusions are based on IQ tests that tend to overestimate mental disability in the autism population.

2. Autism might be better thought of as a different way to view the world rather than as a disease

The author of the Scientific American feature has two autistic brothers and talks about how his autistic siblings have trouble doing things most people would consider simple, such as sitting still for a few seconds. But at the same time they have amazing abilities to do some things that seemed hard for non-autistic people. This is a problem because teachers and other adults may be so frustrated with the behavior of autistic children that they group them in the disabled group before these children have a chance to shine on tasks they are good at.

3. IQ tests don’t give meaningful insights into autistic childrens’ abilities.

The most commonly used IQ test, called the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children, is a verbal timed test that depends on social knowledge. Autistic children have a lot of difficulty with verbal communication and social interactions, so the WISC test automatically puts them at a disadvantage academically.

There are other tests that test IQ using visual designs and patterns. These play better to autistics’ strengths. The article says that most non-autistic children will score within roughly the same percentile range for verbal and nonverbal tests, but autistic children don’t. Researchers have even seen that low functioning autistic children sometimes perform very well in some portions of the nonverbal IQ tests.

4. Autistic children’s talents lie in logic and pattern recognition tasks, and the education system should play to these strengths rather than penalizing their other difficulties

Autistic people are particularly good at identifying outliers in patterns or logic, and society would benefit most if it supported these talents rather than penalize autistics for the skills that they have trouble with.

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