Autism and IQ tests: Why I am saying no!

6 June 2018

Dear friend,

In the past, nonverbal children with autism were considered mentally retarded, and those who had difficulties in communication were considered intellectually slow. Now it has become more widely recognized that autism spectrum disorder has nothing to do with intelligence, it is a developmental disorder. In fact more recently studies have been carried out to identify the links between autism and higher intelligence. It is fair to say that Autistic people like Neuro-typical people run the gamut of intelligence. 

French psychologist Alfred Binet developed the first modern IQ test in the early 1900s. Its purpose was to find children who needed special education. Common tests now include the Stanford–Binet Intelligence Scale, and the Wechsler Scales. They measure skills that are, 'Generally important for success in school.' 

But IQ tests measure only a part of what we often think of as intelligence, which includes a person's ability to solve problems, reason, plan, think abstractly, and learn from the world around him.
IQ scores of children on the autism spectrum may not be accurate reflections of their intellectual potential. 


We recently had an intake meeting with a psychologist. We wanted to find some therapy for our son to help him with the death of his grandpa and we hoped he would be able to join a group for pubescent boys with autism. We left the meeting deeply disappointed as the only help we were offered was medication and an intelligence test.

We turned down both..



Studies have shown that often autistic children who are performing at grade level or above in school, have IQ scores that show them to have below average or even mentally deficient intelligence levels. 
There is...too much reliance on IQ tests that frequently underestimate the intelligence of autistic people... - Simon Baron-Cohen
This was certainly true for us. 

Our big lad was given an IQ test as part of the battery of testing he had on diagnosis (aged 5). We were shocked by the results and dumbfounded when we were advised to enrol him in special education. The results did not reflect the picture of our son that we had at home or school. We decided to ignore the advice.

We were offered another test when our son was seven. The psychologists acknowledged that the original test could have been flawed as our son was tested in his second language. I think they found it hard to believe that he was coping so well in a 'regular' school environment. 

The results showed he had a disharmonic profile. With high peaks in some areas and significant lows in others. But despite improvements, he still presented as 'below average'. School concluded that this wasn't a true reflection of his abilities. And we agreed wholeheartedly. 

When American psychiatrists updated their diagnostic manual in 2013, they acknowledged a difficulty with IQ tests and autism. They cautioned that measuring a child's intellectual ability may be complicated by the symptoms of autism and that a child's score may vary widely over time.

For a child to perform to their ability on a standard IQ test, they must be able to quickly respond to verbal questions and have well developed motor skills. These are areas that are difficult for our son and for many others on the spectrum.

People with autism spectrum disorders are impacted by sensory processing challenges and this can effect test results. The big lad will find it hard to respond in a room with bright fluorescent lights or in new environment or to someone he doesn't know or in a room with a ticking clock.

Many people with autism also have anxiety disorders. My son has significant anxiety around testing and a fear of failure. Why would I choose to put him under stress to get a number that means little to school or to us?

We know that it is extremely difficult to measure the IQ of a person with autism. Their social interaction problems, communication delay, and behavioral issues all work against an accurate measure of their intellectual abilities.



I asked our psychologist why we were being offered a method of testing that is ill-suited to autistic children. According to her the people who administer the test are trained to take into account the needs of autistic people during the testing by for example; giving them more time, taking breaks or adapting the test. 

It is worth noting that the IQ test was never intended to be used as a measure of intelligence. Some scientists have even gone so far as describing IQ as a myth. Dr Roger Highfield and his team concluded that, IQ tests are misleading because they do not accurately reflect intelligence. They found that a minimum of three different exams were needed to measure someone's brainpower.

I am not advising that everyone turns down IQ testing for their children but that you consider it as one set of data and that you take into account the 'bigger' picture when looking at test results. Trust your instincts, you know your child best and communicate with school.

To me my son is uniquely and remarkably intelligent. And as a teacher with over 20 years experience I will always struggle to limit intelligence to one test or one number.

Intelligence is, too complex to capture with a single number - Stephen Jay Gould, The Mismeasure of Man

I am saying no. What about you?


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