Autism and intelligence

posted by Jeff | Monday, December 6, 2021, 3:31 PM | comments: 0

As you might expect, I've had a lot of conversations lately about autism. One of the things that I find continually frustrating is that autism seems to be associated with low intelligence by most laypeople. On the surface of public perception, this may be a justified view. Research shows that while 5% of the population exhibits an IQ score under 70, it's about 30% among people with autism. This inevitably invites two questions. The first is, are IQ tests in some way biased against people who exhibit symptoms of ASD? The second question is, how do you account for the fact that many (most?) of history's greatest scientists and artists were autistic? The math doesn't make sense.

The perception of others aside, this matters because I'm a parent searching for answers for my child. So what then is the reason for Simon's academic difficulty, but not all of the time and not in every subject? When you mix in the ADHD on top, it's even harder to figure out. At this very moment, he's on the verge of meltdown in the other room over homework.

What I can observe in him is not entirely unlike my own experience as a child. He's very curious about the way machines work, he prefers concrete details over abstracts, he's impatient about getting to outcomes quickly. The curiosity is a good thing, and maybe so is the desire to know details over ideas, but the impatience will definitely not serve him. This was one of my biggest problems in learning to code (I was self-taught): I just wanted to put stuff on the screen, so I was slow to learn how the tools were best used, and understanding object-oriented concepts took a long time when I was comfortable with procedural code.

I'm projecting my difficulty on him, which might be wrong, but I think I see intelligence that is not itself impaired, but made difficult by the way in which he needs to learn. When he "gets" something, he can crank through it, but if he isn't there yet, then he finds it challenging to focus, and he very often comes back to things "taking too long," which is code for "I'd rather be doing something else." So much of the challenge for Simon is understanding the reasons he struggles with school, and where accommodations help over accountability. It's no wonder that they symbolize autism with puzzle icons. Maybe I'm being unrealistic that it's a puzzle that can be solved.

So if he's not in the bottom 30%, how do I help him? I don't know. Again, when you throw in the ADHD and the typical personality traits of a pre-teen, trying to work with him can be volatile at best. I do think that some of it is that inability to self-regulate emotions, and I'm hopeful that he's turning a corner there because he's becoming very self-aware when he's not. That's a big deal.


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