I have discussed ASD and the impact (if any) it has on intelligence with a variety of people. Recently, I’ve noticed that opinions are becoming more and more polarised. Half the people I speak to confidently proclaim that everyone with autism is a genius, while the other half confidently proclaim that autism is a learning difficulty. But these are just opinions, and in my view very damaging to people that identify as autistic for a variety of reasons.
I vividly remember one conversation I had with a neurotypical friend from school. I hadn’t “come out” to her as autistic (at the time I hadn’t “come out” to anyone as autistic). At one point autism came up in our conversation, and she immediately stated that ‘autistic people are usually REALLY intelligent or REALLY talented’. I remember sitting there in disbelief, trying to resist the temptation to slide down my chair or cover my face with my hands. All I could think was: I can never come out to her about My Asperger’s Syndrome; she won’t believe I’m intelligent enough to have autism. I’m not stupid, and there are plenty of things I can do fairly well, but I certainly wouldn’t describe myself as ‘REALLY intelligent’ or ‘REALLY talented’. Like most people on the autism spectrum I don’t have savant qualities. I’m just a normal human that happens to have been born with autism. Why isn’t that enough?
Another neurotypical friend (whose girlfriend has Asperger’s Syndrome) recently informed me his whole family believe autism to be the next stage in human evolution. This caused me to experience some mixed emotions. At first I was adamant that autism could never be the next stage in evolution because it had caused me so many issues growing up. Then I realised that the majority of these issues (bullying, isolation, depression) did not stem from autism itself, but rather from the lack of understanding and tolerance neurotypical people have towards any kind of difference. If autism really is the next stage in human evolution, I wish the rest of the population would hurry up and evolve so they can relate to me more and stop seeing me as a weirdo!
Autism is not the next stage in evolution. As tempting as it is for someone with my ego to believe that, I won’t lie to myself. Autistics aren’t superior to the rest of the population, nor are we inferior. We’re just different. There are many famously intelligent people who are thought to be on the spectrum- such as Albert Einstein and Steven Hawking. In my opinion these are unsuitable autism role models. Not because they are bad people, but because they are/were phenomenally intelligent and that pressure is a lot to live up to. It’s hard enough for someone with autism to develop the social skills they need to carve out a place for themselves in a neurotypical world. And now, on top of fitting in with our peers people also expect us to be remarkably intelligent!
Despite the number of intelligent people on the autism spectrum, despite the fact that Steven Hawking himself has been diagnosed with autism, so many specialists still view it as a learning disability.
Believing autism makes people stupid is just as damaging as believing it makes people intelligent. When I was a child I was a slow writer. This had nothing to do with my intelligence (I went on to achieve a first class honours degree in Creative Writing and Drama) and everything to do with poor muscular control, which was a result of my dyspraxia, a condition related to Asperger’s Syndrome. The school assumed that since I was having trouble writing, I must be having trouble reading, and enrolled me in some remedial classes. This was humiliating for me. I was taken into an empty room and made to read aloud from a book that contained two lines of text and a big, goofy cartoon picture. I’d then go home and read Bram Stokers Dracula, or JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. If anybody had bothered to assess my reading age, they would have realised it’s always been average or above. I just couldn’t communicate in the same way neurotypicals could, leading them to believe I had no thoughts, intelligence or opinions to communicate.
Another reason my extra reading lessons were problematic is they were all the autism related support my school was prepared to give. It was the wrong kind of support, but it filled enough hours for someone to be able to tick a box that saying the one autistic girl in class was receiving everything she legally required. I was floundering socially. I couldn’t relate to my classmates at all, causing me to become withdrawn, isolated and a target for bullying. I would have benefited from some social skills workshops. This kind of support might have helped me thrive, but it wasn’t provided, because people assume that any problems a child encounters during school must be directly related to their intelligence.
With Kanner’s (or classical) autism in particular, it’s commonly assumed that if a person has little or no words, they have little or no intelligence. I was shocked when, after spending several months working with a classically autistic teenager his tutor informed he had the intelligence of an eighteen month old infant. This teenager was fully toilet trained, could eat unassisted, and was capable of maintaining conversations and making jokes that caused all the staff to laugh. Sure, he only spoke in short sentences, and we often addressed him using short sentences because it was difficult for him to grasp the meaning otherwise- but these strategies are all linked to communication, not intelligence. Communication and intelligence aren’t always related. Communication is simply how a person shares their intelligence with the wider world. You could cover a diamond in cloth, but that doesn’t mean it never existed, it just means it’s hidden, waiting to be revealed.
I don’t believe this teenager I worked with had the intelligence of an infant. I do believe he had low self-esteem, because I witnessed him approach others with caution and apologise profusely for the slightest transgression. If he so much as bumped into me an endless stream of ‘sorry sorry sorry’ would come from his mouth, and his face took on such a pained expression I wanted to scoop him up in a bear hug. It felt as if he was apologising not just for bumping into me, but for being different, and for needing help from so many others in order to adjust to a neurotypical society. Being different is nothing to apologise for. Needing help is nothing to apologise for. But I have autism myself, and that sense of guilt was all too familiar to me.
It was very hard for me to hear this boy’s Tutor address him as though he were a baby. I remembered how teachers used to initiate conversation with me, talking so slowly and using such simple words I never wanted to speak to them again. I was just as intelligent as anyone else in my class, so why did they insist on treating me so differently? In the end this choice to address me as though I was an idiot only contributed towards my social isolation. I decided I’d rather not talk at all than talk to people who thought I was stupid, and my decision to keep silent only prevented my social skills from developing at the rate they could have been. I suspect the classically autistic teenager I worked with years later was the victim of a similar self-fulfilling prophecy. He was addressed as though he had the intelligence of an infant. Gradually he started to believe he had the intelligence of an infant, and this belief would prevent anyone from growing and developing at the rate they were capable of, regardless of whether it was true.
I hope the above examples illustrate how damaging the popular misconceptions about autism and intelligence can be. Assuming everyone on the autism spectrum is a savant puts far too much pressure on them, while assuming that everyone on the autism spectrum is learning disabled prevents them from recognising their true potential and encourages them to shut out the world. Autism is not a learning disability, nor is it a genius syndrome. It is a social awareness and communications disability that has no impact whatsoever on a person’s intelligence.
Even if you believe someone has low intelligence or could be diagnosed as retarded, it is important that you treat them with respect and address them as though they were as intelligent as you. It could be that they are intelligent and simply haven’t found the right way to communicate yet. Carly Fleischman (autism advocate) was thought to be mentally retarded until she walked up to a laptop and started typing. Gradually, the people who’d addressed her as though she was as thick as a plank of wood came to realise they’d been talking to a highly intelligent, articulate young woman who was very aware of the world around her. It had just taken her a long time to find a way to communicate with that world.