Can This IQ be right? Autism and IQ

More and more often I am advocating for children on the autism spectrum who are achieving at or above grade level, but whose IQ scores show them to have below average or even cognitively impaired. The IQ score is supposed to represent a person’s ability to learn, so how could it be that a child could be learning so well but be intellectually disabled?

The answer is that it can’t be; it makes no sense. Research shows that the IQ scores of children on the autism spectrum may not be accurate reflections of their innate intellectual potential. While in the past many psychologists have believed that the vast majority of children with autism had below normal intelligence, recent scientific studies have found otherwise.  Before 1998 only one-fifth of the people with ASD functioned in the “normal range” of intelligence.  But in 2014, a U.S. study found that almost half of the children with ASD had average or above average intelligence, that is, an IQ score above 85. Less than a third of the children with autism had intellectual disability.

As it turns out, the standard IQ tests (the WISC-IV and the Stanford-Binet), which school psychologists and others often use, do not tap the true cognitive ability of many children on the autistic spectrum. According to the highly respected National Research Council, by definition autism often prevents students from doing well on those traditional IQ tests because they rely heavily on communication, social and verbal skills.

Some people might say “Well, if you can’t engage interpersonally, listen and express yourself, then you’re just not very smart, and you deserve the low IQ score you received.” But, the truth is that IQ tests are supposed to measure a person’s intellectual potential, and not their ability to communicate what they know to a stranger. Other people might say “Well, who cares if my child’s IQ score is inaccurately low — it might actually help me get disability benefits.”

The reason why as an advocate I care is because schools use the IQ score to place children. Often children with below average or mentally deficient IQ scores are placed in classrooms in which students are not expected to meet grade level standards and teachers are often not held accountable student progress in those classrooms. Once a child has been in that type of classroom for a few years, it becomes extremely difficult to catch up to their mainstream peers.

What Can You Do About It?

I like to give my readers practical solutions and not just talk about theory. I have a few recommendations depending upon your specific circumstances:

  • If your child on the autism spectrum has never had an IQ test, I do not see why you need to run out and get one. A child can be diagnosed with and treated for autism without having a traditional IQ test. And schools can legally make decisions about classroom placement without knowing your child’s IQ.
  • If your child’s public school evaluates him or her for special education services, the school psychologist will often want to do an IQ test. If your child is on the spectrum and you think they might not do so well on a standard IQ test, you can either:
    • Refuse to consent to any IQ test — when you sign the parental consent form authorizing the public school to evaluate your child, you could write-in that you do not agree to any IQ test. Be polite and simply say something like you “don’t believe in the IQ test –never have.” You wouldn’t be the first one to have major problems with IQ testing — it’s falling out of favor in many quarters of the field of education, including in Gifted Education;
    • Refuse to consent to standard IQ tests (the WISC-IV and the Stanford Binet), but authorize the school to use other reputable IQ tests which may be more valid assessments of intellectual ability with autistic kids. Three of those other IQ tests are: i) the Raven Progressive Matrices test; ii) the Leiter International Performance Scale (your child needs to be able to communicate by gesturing for this test); and iii) the Kaufman Assessment Battery for Children. Understand that it is not clear whether or not a parent has the legal right to tell the school district which IQ test you want administered. However, you can try this approach and see if it sticks.
  • If the school insists on performing an IQ test, show them some of the articles I’ve linked to above.   
  • If the public school has recently evaluated your child for special education services, there will be a meeting during which the results of the evaluation are discussed. If the school psychologist administered an IQ test and you believe that the results may not be accurate, you have the legal right to request that the school district pay for a private evaluation called an “Independent Educational Evaluation.” 

I know this is a very complicated issue and I hope I’ve shed some light on it. If you have any questions, or want to share your personal experiences with the IQ test and the school system, please schedule a consultation or email me.

In a 2009 study*, children with autism and typically-developing children were given two IQ tests: the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children (a widely used IQ test involving a great deal of language) and the Raven’s Progressive Matrices (a measure of nonverbal, “fluid intelligence”). Results of the study revealed: Typically-developing children scored similarly on both tests, but results of two tests were significantly different for children with autism.    None of the children with autism in the study scored above average on the WISC, but 33% percent did so on the Raven’s Progressive Matrices.  33% percent of the children with autism scored in the range of mental retardation on the WISC, but only 5% scored in this range on the Raven’s Progressive Matrices. Some notable psychologists recommend that parents request that psychologist use the Ravens or another test of intelligence which is less language-laden called the Leiter-R.  Psychologists may want to employ some of the following testing accommodations when administering assessments:  Presenting one item at a time to reduce stimuli; Using a visual schedule to reduce anxiety; and Providing positive reinforcement to help students to finish an exam which may not appear relevant to them.