Is Your Child With Autism Really Intellectually Disabled?

By Timothy Gunn, Psy.D.

special needs

Lack of verbal skills or social connection – rather than actual intellectual disability – might explain the poor performance of children on the spectrum on some IQ tests. FREEDIGITALPHOTOS.COM/SANDRA BLOOM

I am sitting in my office across from a special needs young man who is about to graduate from high school. He has a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder and is very verbal. But though he shows average intellectual ability on some tests of intelligence, he has virtually no academic skills. I can’t help but feel that this individual has been poorly served by society, and wonder why he is so far behind where he should be.

Unfortunately, I can’t say that the experience is uncommon. I often encounter children with autism who are not progressing toward anything that might resemble adult independence. Some children with autism have severe symptoms that will likely always require some level of supervision, but there are fewer of these children than one might think. Autism and intellectual disability do not necessarily go hand-in-hand, and it is a mistake to suppose, based on these children’s performance on IQ tests, that they are intellectually disabled.

A Bias Toward Language

The problem might be with the nature of IQ tests. Many tests of intellectual functioning are strongly verbally weighted or, at minimum, give equal weight to verbal and non-verbal intelligence. Children on the autism spectrum often suffer from language difficulties, and giving one of them an IQ test that measures their verbal intelligence is like giving a student who speaks only French an IQ test administered in English.

Our society is predominantly verbal, and many people assume that children who don’t communicate well verbally are disabled in other areas as well. As autism advocate Temple Grandin once stated, we “almost instantaneously judge the nonverbal person as being intellectually impaired.” Obviously, such a bias is incorrect. Those with low verbal intelligence but average nonverbal intelligence are certainly capable of learning, albeit perhaps in a different way.

A Question of Connection

In addition to language delays, a hallmark of autism spectrum is that children are not as connected to their natural or social environment in the same way that their typically developing peers are. This means some children might not perform well on non-verbal IQ tests simply due to the fact that they are not as connected to the environment.

Many non-verbal tests of intelligence use pictures of common everyday objects, with which they require the child to reason and problem solve. However, some children on the autism spectrum do not have the same level of exposure to such items or, if they have been exposed, they do not understand the usefulness of the item in the same way as their typically developing peers does. This is a function of the social disconnectedness consistent with autism and not necessarily a sign of intellectual disability. I have observed children with autism score poorly on these types of non-verbal IQ tests, then perform in the average (or higher) range on non-verbal IQ tests that use random abstract geometric shapes and require no social reasoning or exposure.

Room For Improvement

It is also important to consider that intellectual ability may not be as stable a trait as many people assume. For years, we considered it something akin to eye color. If you have brown eyes today, you are always going to have brown eyes (colored contacts notwithstanding). Similarly, the thinking goes, if you meet criteria for intellectual disability today, you are always going to be intellectually disabled. But this is not necessarily true for children on the autism spectrum.

One of the seminal studies in the field of autism treatment documented that children with autism who were given intensive treatment services drastically improved their performance on IQ testing. Ivar Lovaas’ 1987 study included 19 children with autism, 17 of whom also performed in the moderate to severe range of intellectual disability on IQ tests. After receiving intensive treatment services, these children improved their IQ scores, on average, by 30 points. This is a profound change and could be the difference between an IQ score of 65 (mildly intellectually disabled) and a score of 95 (in the average range of intelligence). The difference illustrates the effect of providing a child with the services they need rather than simply providing them with a label that presumes they are unable to learn.

As a clinical psychologist, I am a fan of IQ testing and find it to provide helpful information. Nevertheless, it can be dangerous when interpreted the wrong way. Accurate interpretation requires a careful review of results while considering the child’s diagnosis and other areas of difficulty. Too many parents are being told their child with autism is intellectually disabled when, in fact, their child simply learns in a different way.

Timothy Gunn, Psy.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist who works with special needs patients and specializes in pediatric neuropsychology and appears as the Question Validator on Lifetime Network’s “Child Genius.” He runs a group practice with several offices throughout Southern California. You can find out more about his practice at

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  1. The IQ test is static and could one day be redesigned for kids on the Spectrum. In the meantime it is true that the IQ of a child can go up by 30 points or more when he or she is taught in the manner that works for them individually. Is your child an Auditory, Visual or Kinesthetic learner? While some schools do all three in a classroom hoping that some of it sticks-there is nothing like one to one individual teaching and coaching. Perhaps your child’s eyes do not work together as a team? That would make words appear to jump around the page which would reduce their ability to learn to read. This can be fixed with eye exercises. I go over so many things that can be taken care of in my book “Recovering Autism, ADHD, & Special Needs.” For more check out my website.Thanks Timothy!

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