Which Autism Spectrum Makes You Smart?

Explore which autism makes you smart, unraveling misconceptions and highlighting unique cognitive abilities.

steven zauderer
Steven Zauderer
April 25, 2024
10 min read
min read

Understanding Autism and Intelligence

Autism and intelligence are fields of study that have been closely examined by researchers, specifically in an attempt to understand their interplay. A particularly intriguing question relates to the genetic correlations between autism and intelligence and the different types of Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD).

Genetic Correlations and Intelligence

Studies have reported positive genetic correlations between autism risk and measures of mental ability, indicating that genetic variations for autism overlap broadly with those for high intelligence. This occurs despite autism often being characterized by below-average IQ, which leads to a seeming paradox. However, the hypothesis that autism involves enhanced but imbalanced components of intelligence helps to resolve this paradox.

Research supports this hypothesis, showing that autism and high IQ share a diverse set of correlates, including large brain size, fast brain growth, increased sensory and visual-spatial abilities, enhanced synaptic functions, increased attentional focus, high socioeconomic status, more deliberative decision-making, and profession and occupational interests in engineering and physical sciences. Additionally, there is a high level of positive assortative mating, which refers to the tendency of individuals with similar traits to mate. These findings provide an evolutionary basis for understanding autism risk as being partly underlain by dysregulation of intelligence.

Types of Autism Spectrum Disorders

ASD is a broad term that encapsulates several conditions:

  1. Autism: This is typically characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech, and nonverbal communication.
  2. Asperger's Syndrome: People with Asperger's usually have milder symptoms of autistic disorder. They might have social challenges and unusual behaviors and interests. However, they typically do not have problems with language or intellectual disability.
  3. Pervasive Developmental Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS): Also known as atypical autism, individuals with PDD-NOS usually have fewer and milder symptoms than those with autistic disorder. The symptoms might cause only social and communication challenges.
  4. Childhood Disintegrative Disorder (CDD): This is a rare condition in which a child develops normally until age 2 to 4, but then demonstrates a severe loss of social, communication, and other skills.
  5. Rett Syndrome: Only affecting girls, Rett Syndrome leads to severe intellectual and physical disability.

The intelligence levels can vary greatly across these disorders, making it a complex field to study. It's important to remember that every individual with autism is unique, and while certain trends can be observed, they don't define the capabilities or potential of an individual with autism.

Autism and Cognitive Abilities

Autism is a complex neurodevelopmental disorder with a wide range of cognitive abilities and challenges. The different types of Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) display unique cognitive profiles. This section delves into the cognitive abilities associated with Asperger's Syndrome, Rett Syndrome, Childhood Disintegrative Disorder (CDD), Kanner's Syndrome, and Pervasive Developmental Disorder - Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS).

Asperger's Syndrome

Children with Asperger’s Syndrome, now classified under level 1 Autism Spectrum Disorder, typically have above-average intelligence and strong verbal skills. However, they face challenges in social communication. These individuals are often intellectually curious, have a wide range of interests, and may excel in fields requiring detailed knowledge and precision [2].

Rett Syndrome

Rett syndrome is a rare neurodevelopmental disorder that predominantly affects girls. The symptoms of Rett syndrome challenge various aspects of a child's life, such as motor skills and cognitive abilities. Despite these challenges, with proper care and support, children affected by Rett syndrome can still live fulfilling lives [2].

Childhood Disintegrative Disorder (CDD)

Childhood Disintegrative Disorder (CDD) is more common in boys, with nine out of every ten cases occurring in boys and only one in a girl. CDD is characterized by a delayed onset of developmental problems and regression in language, motor skills, and social function, usually after the age of three up to age ten.

Kanner's Syndrome

Kanner’s Syndrome, also known as infantile autism, was first described in 1943 by psychiatrist Leo Kanner from John Hopkins University. Children with Kanner's Syndrome might seem attractive, alert, and intelligent but display characteristics of the disorder. These may include challenges in social interaction, communication, and repetitive behaviors.

Pervasive Developmental Disorder - Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS)

Pervasive Developmental Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS) is a milder type of autism. It may involve delays in language development, walking, and motor skills. PDD-NOS is characterized by challenges in social and language development, with some referring to it as “subthreshold autism”.

Understanding the cognitive abilities associated with different types of autism is crucial. It helps to provide appropriate support and intervention strategies, fostering the strengths and capabilities of individuals on the spectrum. In the quest to answer 'which autism makes you smart,' it's essential to remember that intelligence isn't a linear concept, and different types of autism can foster diverse intellectual strengths.

IQ Discrepancies in Autism

When evaluating intelligence, it's important to bear in mind that traditional measurement tools may not accurately capture the full range of cognitive abilities, especially in individuals with autism. This section will explore the discrepancies in IQ measurements in autistic individuals, focusing on two common tests: Raven's Progressive Matrices and Wechsler scales, along with the IQ profiles of autistic children and adults.

Raven's Progressive Matrices vs. Wechsler Scales

Raven's Progressive Matrices and Wechsler scales are both commonly used tools to assess cognitive abilities. However, research has shown a marked discrepancy in the scores of autistic individuals on these two tests. According to a study published on NCBI, autistic individuals' scores on the Raven's Progressive Matrices, a test of fluid intelligence, were, on average, 30 percentile points higher than their scores on the Wechsler scales of intelligence. In some cases, the discrepancy was even more pronounced, with scores differing by more than 70 percentile points.

Autistic Children's IQ Profiles

When it comes to autistic children's IQ profiles, a similar pattern is observed. Their scores on the Raven's Progressive Matrices were at the 56th percentile, indicating an average level of performance. In contrast, their scores on the Wechsler scales were in the range of low average.

A notable observation is that autistic children typically demonstrate a marked peak on the nonverbal subtest of the Wechsler scales, known as Block Design. This subtest involves reproducing a two-dimensional design using colored blocks and is scored for accuracy within a time limit.

Autistic Adults' IQ Profiles

In the case of autistic adults, the discrepancy in scores on the Raven's Progressive Matrices and Wechsler scales is even more pronounced. Their scores on the Raven's Progressive Matrices were, on average, more than 30 percentile points higher than their scores on the Wechsler scales of intelligence. Interestingly, the scores of nonautistic adults on these two tests did not differ significantly.

This contrast in IQ profiles between autistic and nonautistic individuals underscores the complexity of cognitive strengths and weaknesses in autism. It also highlights the importance of using a variety of measurement tools to get a comprehensive understanding of cognitive abilities in autism.

The information provided in this section sheds light on the complexities of measuring intelligence in autistic individuals and emphasizes the need for a nuanced approach when assessing cognitive abilities. The discrepancy between scores on different tests underscores the unique cognitive profile of individuals with autism and offers valuable insights into the nature of intelligence in this population.

Heterogeneity of IQ in Autism

As we delve into the topic of autism and intelligence, it's important to note the significant heterogeneity of IQ within the autism spectrum. The understanding of autistic intelligence has evolved over time, highlighting the need to look beyond simple IQ scores when characterizing cognitive abilities in autism.

Bimodal Distribution of IQ

Historically, older epidemiological studies suggested a larger proportion of individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) have below average intelligence (IQ), with only a few individuals with ASD having an IQ above average. However, more recent studies have reported a shift in this distribution. There is now a larger proportion of individuals with ASD who have IQ scores in the average to above average range.

In a broader sample of patients with ASD, a bimodal distribution of IQ was observed. This resulted in a split, with 38.2% having below average intelligence (IQ < 85), 40% having above average intelligence (IQ > 115), and 21.8% having average intelligence (IQ between 85 and 115) [4].

IQ Range Percent of ASD Patients
Below Average (IQ < 85) 38.2%
Average (IQ 85 - 115) 21.8%
Above Average (IQ > 115) 40%

Camouflaging and Compensation Strategies

The heterogeneity in autism symptomatology seems to be reflected in the diversity of IQ profiles in individuals with ASD. Differentiated and full-scale IQ tests often show a mixed picture, with high scores in some subtests and low ones in others. It's crucial to consider this heterogeneity when interpreting IQ scores in individuals with ASD.

IQ and Adaptive Behaviors

When it comes to real-life functioning, there appears to be a significant gap between IQ and adaptive behaviors. This suggests that IQ alone may not be a precise indicator when diagnosing ASD, especially for those without intellectual disability [4].

The relationship between age, IQ, and ASD diagnosis is intricate, leading to considerable heterogeneity in individuals with ASD. This complexity poses challenges in study sample characterization and individual diagnostics, limiting the interpretability and replicability of study results. Further research is needed to develop, evaluate, and implement ASD subtypes that capture this heterogeneity and improve the validity and sensitivity of diagnostic instruments.

Thus, the question "which autism makes you smart" doesn't have a straightforward answer. It's essential to understand that intelligence in autism is a complex and multifaceted concept, and it's influenced by various factors including age, adaptive behaviors, and specific cognitive abilities.

Unique Abilities in Autism

Autism, a complex neurodevelopmental condition, often manifests in unique cognitive profiles that differ significantly from neurotypical individuals. This leads to a range of abilities and talents that are not necessarily captured by traditional metrics of intelligence.

"Spiky" Ability Profile

The cognitive profile of many individuals with autism is often characterized as "spiky", implying that they may excel in certain areas while facing challenges in others. This is largely due to the fact that autistic minds are wired differently, with various methods of thinking such as thinking in words, pictures, sounds, or layers. This makes it challenging for traditional IQ tests to accurately capture their capacity.

These divergent methods of thinking can lead to exceptional abilities in specific areas. For example, some individuals may have an exceptional memory or an uncanny ability to understand complex systems. This unique cognitive profile often results in a "spiky" performance on cognitive assessments, where they may score exceptionally high in some areas and below average in others.

Divergent Thinking

Autism is often associated with a capacity for divergent thinking, or the ability to generate novel ideas and view problems from various perspectives. Autistic individuals exhibit divergent ways of thinking and being, which are not adequately characterized by tests measuring typical processing [5].

This ability to think differently can be a significant asset in many fields. It can lead to innovative solutions to problems and unique ways of understanding the world. However, it's important to note that not all individuals with autism will exhibit this trait, and it does not necessarily correlate with traditional measures of intelligence.

Autistic Genius in STEM Fields

Research has indicated a potential link between autism and intelligence, particularly in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). A study by Cambridge University revealed that autistic traits are more common among individuals involved in STEM fields [6].

This suggests that the unique cognitive profiles of many individuals with autism may lend themselves to success in these areas. It's important to note, however, that success in STEM fields is not a universal trait of autism, and individuals with autism can excel in a wide range of fields.

Moreover, some individuals diagnosed with high-functioning autism can exhibit extraordinary gifts in mental acuity and computation, such as autistic savants, showcasing feats of mental intelligence that surpass neurotypical abilities.

These findings highlight the diverse outcomes of autism spectrum disorder on intelligence, challenging traditional notions of "which autism makes you smart". They underscore the importance of considering the unique abilities and strengths of individuals with autism, rather than focusing solely on deficits or challenges.

Misconceptions and Research Findings

In the quest to understand the relationship between autism and intelligence, many misconceptions have arisen. To counter these misunderstandings, numerous research studies have been conducted, exploring topics including the link between autism and intelligence, genetic studies, cognitive test performance, and the existence of autistic savants and their extraordinary gifts.

Link Between Autism and Intelligence

The concept of the "autistic genius" has been explored in various studies. A research study by Cambridge University revealed that autistic traits are more common among individuals involved in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. This suggests a potential link between autism and intelligence, debunking the myth that autism is necessarily associated with intellectual disability.

Genetic Studies

In an attempt to answer the question "which autism makes you smart", researchers from Ohio State University, the Battelle Center for Mathematical Medicine, and the Research Institute at Nationwide Children’s Hospital found a likely genetic link between autism and intelligence. Their study suggests that families more likely to produce autistic children are also more likely to produce geniuses, indicating a potential genetic correlation between autism and intellectual prowess.

Cognitive Test Performance

A study by Radboud University Medical Centre and the Donders Institute for Brain Cognition and Behavior in the Netherlands provided another perspective on autism and intelligence. The researchers discovered that high-IQ autism patients consistently performed worse on cognitive tests when compared to a non-autistic control group with the same IQ range. This suggests that traditional cognitive tests may underrate the intelligence of individuals with ASD, pointing to the need for more nuanced measures of cognitive abilities in this population [6].

Autistic Savants and Extraordinary Gifts

Contrary to some misconceptions, autism can be associated with extraordinary intellectual abilities. Certain individuals diagnosed with high-functioning autism, known as autistic savants, can showcase feats of mental intelligence that surpass neurotypical abilities. These individuals highlight the diverse outcomes of autism spectrum disorder on intelligence and underscore the potential for exceptional cognitive abilities within the autism spectrum.

In conclusion, understanding autism and intelligence is a complex endeavor, necessitating a nuanced approach that takes into account the diversity of the autism spectrum. The research findings highlight the potential for remarkable cognitive abilities among individuals with autism, challenging misconceptions and expanding our understanding of autism and intelligence.








steven zauderer

CEO of CrossRiverTherapy - a national ABA therapy company based in the USA.

Table of Contents