One of the tenets of the neurodiversity movement is that autism is not at all a disease or horrific handicap, but just an alternative form of brainwiring. Some members of the ND movement concede that autism is a disability. However, on closer scrutiny, it would seem that they differ between the medical model of disability versus the social model of disability. This implies that if only society would change and be more accepting of autistics and/or accommodate their unique way of being, they would not be failures or have poor outcomes.
Until recently, any scientific evidence for this tenet of ND seemed to be saliently lacking. About a year and a half ago, some cognitive scientists in Canada published a study which suggests that intelligence in autism has been underestimated due to the fact they are given the wrong test, namely the Wechsler IQ test. Another test, the Raven’s progressive matrices, they say, is a more valid test. Some autistics who did poorly on the Wechsler scored substantially higher, in some instances much higher, on the Raven’s matrices. Two groups of autistics (one children’s group and an adult group) were compared with two non-autistic control groups. It was found that the difference in the test scores of the controls between the Wechsler and on the Raven’s was negligible.
In my own particular case, I am not sure if I have ever taken the Raven’s matrices or how well I would do on this test. The Wechsler is composed of two different tests, verbal and performance. Each of these two tests in turn is composed of six subtests which I have varying abilities in. I score above average on vocabulary, superior in general knowledge, arithmetic and a test of abstract reasoning called similarities. On the comprehension subtest which has to do with social skills I do not do as well. On some of the subtests of the performance test I score about average on a few others I score in the severely retarded range. Interestingly, one of the subtests I do poorly in is the block design test in which many autistics excel in. As part of my brain damage I have perceptual motor problems which impair my fine motor coordination, handwriting and ability to put together puzzles.
The study, has one of neurodiversity/autism hub’s own bloggers as the lead author, Michelle Dawson. The results of the study has prompted a few neurodiversity proponents to give this study a shout-out claiming that autistics are not really stupid or retarded (in the cases of autistics who score in the retarded range on certain tests of intelligence) .
Autism Diva writes:
So they test a "retarded" autistic using the wrong tests and then expect them to be retarded for the rest of their lives, shove them in the retarded bin and forget about them, not find their talents and use them so they can be "successful" in a different way.
One of the participants scored the bottom of the bottom on every test except for the Raven at which he excelled. No question this person was and is severely impaired absolutely no question about it. But what are we to do with the equally undeniable fact that this person also excelled on the premier test of fluid intelligence? There’s a very big question mark, right there along with all the particularly autistic people, maybe people like you.
Alyric then goes on to state that perhaps if the special ed system had the results of Dawson’s findings, I would have been able to be mainstreamed as a child and that I should be grateful for Dawson’s research because it could help people like me and possibly autistics could function normally or at least better in society based on Dawson’s findings. Since my scores on the Wechsler are so different than those of Dawson’s research subjects it shows that she (Alyric) does not understand my situation.
Joseph writes: I can tell you for a fact that Michelle’s work is being cited by parents in situations where the school system is underestimating the cognitive potential of autistic children. I won’t give details but it is.
The researchers themselves also give implications of their findings to the media:
Lauren Mottron writes:
If we label those children as below-normal in intelligence that is how they’re treated. The challenge is to coax that spark into the kind of intelligence that manifests itself in practice.
Dawson herself writes:
I hope this paper will have the practical effect of making it less likely that autisics will be written off, as autistics are so routinely written off by autism advocates in Canada and elsewhere.
Let us look at the aspects of the study itself: One of the questions is, are the subjects truly representative of autistics who might be classified as intellectually retarded? First off, Dawson excluded any autistic who had a known genetic problem and only included persons with idiopathic autism whose only diagnosis would be autism rather than asperger’s. This means that persons with fragile X, tuberous sclerosis, etc. were excluded. This could mean as many as 10% of all persons diagnosed as autistic, most of whom might actually fall in that retarded range. Also, the group of autistic children is comprised of 35 males and 3 females- a 12 to 1 ratio. The adult group of 11 males and 2 females is a 6:1 ratio. The ratio of males to females in the general population of autistics is 4:1. As noted by Boyd in his critique of Lovaas (1987) sexual inequivalencies in autism research are relevant because there is research showing that female autistics as a group are often substantially more severely autistic than males. Therefore, it would appear that Dawson’s sample excluded a substantial number of subjects who might be classified as low functioning.
The composition of the control groups is also interesting. In the children it is mostly males. The adult control group consists entirely of males. The study says they were recruited from an advertisement in a local newspaper. I wonder if it is possible that this newspaper is Dr. Mottron’s favorite French Canadian porno rag. If there is any reason for excluding females in one of the control groups and having very few in the others it is not given. Therefore, the comparisons between autistic subjects and controls is not representative of either group. as it is questionable how people picked at random from a newspaper ad would be exclusively males.
The scores on the Wechsler are not reported in a traditional sense, i.e. below 70 being retarded above 100 being above average, but rather as percentiles. Individual scores are not given on the Wechsler IQ or any of the subtests. The autistic adult group on the average scored at about the 50th percentile on the Wecshler, so clearly as an average range they were not retarded at all, so applying the statements of the study to the adult group is certainly misleading. The group of autistic children’s average percentile was 31st in the verbal portion of the Wechsler and 26th in the performance. When expressed as percentiles it would seem that this is a disparity between 50th percentile, but, as Dawson states herself in the study, this is in the low average range rather than a retarded average. The percentile in the verbal IQ this might mean an IQ in the low 90s on average as opposed to an average IQ of 100, so on average, this was clearly a higher functioning sample than one who would be composed of many members testing at a level of mental retardation. The stated average percentile of 31st is also misleading when looking at Dawson’s graph of the average of the subtests in the verbal portion of the Wechsler. The Verbal Wechsler is composed of six subtests. For some reason Dawson either excluded the digit span test from the graph or it was not given to the subjects. On two of the other five subtests we see that the average score in the comprehension subtest is below 20th percentile and the vocabulary is also on the low side. Yet on the other three subtests, which measure academic skills, similarities, general knowledge and arithmetic, we see that the average percentile is around 40th, showing that as a group these autistics were nearly average in IQ if we just included the results of these tests. In the block design test, the average was 60th percentile with other subtests of the performance section of the Wechsler being substantially lower. I have mostly focused on the verbal section rather than the performance section because I feel it is more relevant for assessing the children’s academic potential. Also the very low average on the comprehension test is relevant to this discussion but more about that later.
When we look at Dawson’s graph on figure 3 of the study we see that 10 of the 38 children scored 50 or more percentile points on the Raven’s than on the Wechsler, only about 25%. Five of the 38 children had scores that were as high or higher on the Wechsler than on the Raven’s matrices. The remaining 23 children scored higher on their Raven’s percentile than the Wechsler, but in a number of cases it was only fractionally higher, e.g. 30th percentile as opposed to 25th percentile or 70th percentile as opposed to 65th percentile, showing no significant increase in intelligence in one test versus another. It is possible those children could have had a headache or not been feeling well the day they took the Wechsler, than on the day they took the Raven’s and this could account for the small disparity in some of the cases.
As I said before, even if Dawson wants to claim that the Raven’s as a measure of fluid intelligence shows that autistics have the potential for good outcomes outside of negative societal constraints, she will have the explain the poor results on the comprehension subtest as it applies to society. The low average on this test indicates that these autistics would do poorly in social situations, not know what appropriate action to take in certain instances and would apply to them negatively in school and job and other situations. For this reason the results of the comprehension subtest in some aspects may be more valid an indicator of their functioning level than either the Raven’s or Wechsler as a whole.
Even assuming I am somehow mistaken and what I believe to be Dawson's questionable science is sound, the question is, how can the knowledge that autistics do well on tests of fluid intelligence be applied so that they can have better outcomes, how can the educational situation be modified so that the autistics will receive a better education with this knowledge that we have? As is typical, the neurodiversity movement fails miserably in addressing this issue.
Neurodiversity seems fond of spreading stereotypes and urban legends about persons with autism that have no basis in reality. I believe their claim that the results of Dawson’s research showing that autistic people who function at a retarded level have the potential to perform normally is one of them and yet another of the pieces of propaganda that they stoop to in order to promote their misguided agenda.