Date First Published: April 2, 2007
Date Last Updated: November 23, 2010
A great many individuals with autism are also intellectually disabled. 1 Those with Asperger's syndrome, in contrast, must by definition have suffered no cognitive delay during their first 3 years of life. 2 This means that they will usually have at least a “normal” IQ. In some cases, their IQ may be very high, even in the genius range. There are, however, different kinds of smarts.
Your IQ can be through the stratosphere, and you can still have an impaired ability to read the social world, so much so that you struggle to navigate the social complexities in school, workplace, or community.
Having a normal or better IQ can obviously be a good thing. It is a gift, permitting a person to learn and know, to push the envelope of intellectual ability, to rejoice in the pursuit of some realm of knowledge. It is also a major benefit as the person copes with his disability, giving him more to work with as he tries to find ways to compensate for areas of weakness.
It can be a double-edged sword, however, both gift and curse. When someone is aware he is different, when, for all his intelligence, he is having a difficult time making friends, or getting a date, or keeping a job, he may end up far more prone to depression and despair than a less aware person with a lower IQ. It has indeed been found that children with both high-functioning autism and Asperger's suffer from depression and anxiety more than their typical peers. 3
Another disadvantage of that normal-to-high intelligence is that many will take it to mean the person is not disabled, period. If he’s getting good grades, doing OK on standardized tests, or has an advanced vocabulary, how could he possibly have a real disability? People fail to understand, believing that, if he has trouble interacting, it must be due to personal failings, and the “disability” label is just an excuse. He may be viewed by a grade school teacher, for example, as an impossible, oppositional brat. His parents, meanwhile, may be viewed as incompetent, his “willfully” bad behavior assumed to be a reflection of permissive parenting or a messed up home life. Writes Tony Attwood:
“Strangers may consider the child to be rude, inconsiderate or spoilt, giving parents a withering look and assuming the unusual social behavior is a result of parental incompetence. They may comment, ‘Well, if I had him for two weeks he would be a different child.’ The parents’ reaction may be that they would gladly let them have the child, as they need a rest, and to prove a point. It is essential that other people understand that the child is not being rude, but did not know a more tactful alternative or appreciate the effect on other people.” 4
One of the biggest challenges for anyone advocating for a person with Asperger's is to convey the true extent of the disability to others, to counter the instant assumption that “high IQ” equates with “non-disabled.” In truth, people with Asperger's are socially-emotionally far behind their chronological age, and may seem, despite intellectual achievements, very young, naïve, and unaware of the complexities of social reality. They are not intellectually, but socially, disabled.
- American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th ed., rev.). Washington DC: Author. (pg 71)
- World Health Organization. (1992). International classification of diseases: Diagnostic criteria for research (10th edition). Geneva, Switzerland: Author. (pg.186-187)
- Kim, J.A., Szatmari, P., Bryson, S.E., Streiner, D.L., & Wilson, F.J. (2000). The prevalence of anxiety and mood problems among children with autism and Asperger syndrome. Autism, 4(2), 117-132. Abstract
- Attwood, T. (1998). Asperger’s syndrome: A guide for parents and professionals. London and Philadephia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers. (pg. 32-33)