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‘Autistic Intelligence’

Updated: Dec 4, 2022

Big world people [non-autistics] can be considered idiots in the autistic world, too, just as it can be the other way round. (Jasmine O’Neill)

What we really measure with IQ tests of autistic people is how well a person can function (or even communicate his/her functioning) in a different perceptual/ cognitive/ linguistic/ social world using perceptual / cognitive / language systems available to him (but unidentified by the test).

Different forms of intelligence

The phenomenon of autistic savants provides strong evidence that there can be many different forms of intelligence that may be independent of each other. The studies by Hermelin and her colleagues in the early 1980s showed that visual savants, for instance, were far better than non-autistic people at extracting the essential features from a design, and that their memory was not photographic and eidetic, but, rather, categorical and analytical, allowing them to select certain features and use them to build their own images (Hermelin 2001). These and more recent studies of cognitive abilities in autism give some evidence that there might be different forms of intelligence, each with its own characteristic features and styles.

Asperger himself recognised ‘autistic intelligence’ as a sort of intelligence that is unconventional, unorthodox, strangely ‘pure’ and original, akin to the intelligence of true creativity, scarcely touched by tradition and culture.

Tests used to assess intelligence in autism

To explore cognition and assess intelligence in autism, such instruments as Wechsler scales, British Picture Vocabulary Scale (BPVS) and the Raven’s Coloured Progressive Matrices test (RCPM) to assess children (5 to 10 ½ ) / Raven’s Standard Progressive Matrices (RSPM) for older children and adults are frequently used.

Using the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children (WISC) with ASD, Takayanagi et al. (2021) identified patterns of cognitive characteristics in ASD individuals: The classic “islets of ability” was found in individuals with full-scale IQs < 100. High levels on the Block Design were consistently found regardless of the variation in intellectual functioning.

These tests do not identify ‘autistic intelligence’. This is unfortunate, because if we have knowledge of the ‘inner abilities’ and mechanisms they have acquired, we can better support and teach autistic persons to function in the non-autistic world and, consequently, they could score a higher IQ.

Autistic vs. non-autistic intelligence and IQ tests

When autistic individuals perform certain tasks at the same level (and, sometimes, better) than typically developing persons, I wouldn’t call it autistic intelligence. Their abilities, while ‘invisible’, may be so unusual that no existing test can measure them. For instance, how could you measure (and appreciate) such abilities as being ‘in resonance with’/ ‘losing oneself in/ ‘merging with’ their environment. (The terms have been introduced by Donna Williams): Some autistic individuals are able to be ‘in resonance’ with their surroundings, and they can ‘merge’ with sensory stimuli / objects/ plants / animals/ people, as if the person becomes them.

Most IQ tests do not test for things like intuition or the type of empathy that comes from the ability to resonate with and feel the other person’s emotional reality (although not interpreting it consciously). Some autistic individuals may function at their best when the tasks do not involve conscious awareness, are not primarily language-based, rely on triggering responses rather than expectations of good conscious accessing skills, and involve intuitive ‘understanding’ essentially based on pattern, theme and feel (Williams 2006).

Two styles of accumulating information

There seem to be two distinct styles of accumulating information, which differ in ways of perceiving, storing and retrieving information. In most people, language covers up the primary sensory-based thinking that human shares with animals (Grandin 2006), so they use a conscious (direct) style of thinking. The other is a preconscious style (‘a waking subconscious mind’ – receiving an infinite amount of unprocessed information that is literal and objective, indirectly, without conscious interpretation). The storing capacity is also unlimited. However, access to and retrieval of this information is difficult; it can be triggered but not accessed voluntarily (Williams 1998). That is, they do not know what information they have accumulated, though it may be triggered from the outside and they surprise us (and often themselves) with their knowledge we never thought they had. This is a sort of ‘unknown knowing’. They might accumulate as much as 95% of information preconsciously, without learning (Williams 1996).

Research (Farah & Feinberg 1997; Gazzaniga 1988) has shown that different neural mechanisms appear to be involved in conscious and unconscious/subconscious processing. These are based on a constant switching between the two processing models, with one or the other being in charge.

Temple Grandin (2006) argues that sensory-based thinking is subconscious in most people, while those like herself think with the primary sensory-based subconscious areas of the brain. When well developed, this way of thinking brings certain advantages that are not available to others.

Some autistic people take in information consciously and directly, but at the cost of its coherence, because they have to narrow their attention and shut down any background information in order to cope with the conscious processing of whatever is in the focus of their attention. Some seem to fluctuate between the two styles.

By distinguishing between preconscious and conscious perceptual processing, we can distinguish between different types of intelligence: conscious and preconscious – the latter with little conscious awareness (‘unknown knowing’).

Are there any tests to measure these abilities?

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