Sometimes, the cover tells us very little about the story within. These can be some of the best reads.
Autistic children, especially those who struggle with speech and motor skills, can appear on the outside to be very disconnected and out of touch. Below the surface though we are discovering that many of these same children have rich inner worlds with thoughts, feelings, and emotions that are far more advanced than we may have been told.
Carla Sturak had the amazing first hand experience of discovering this for herself. Carla is the mother of a not-so-verbal autistic teenager, Dashiell, who recently developed the motor skills to type and express himself. Carla had the inclination since Dashiell was very young that a lot more was going on in his head than he could express. So one of the first questions Carla asked her son once he could type was, “How long have you known how to read?”
His response surprised everyone.
Dashiell slowly typed,
“Thank you very much for asking.”
“I’ve been reading since I was four.”
“I’m glad you finally figured it out.”
Clara’s first thought after hearing this from her son was, “Oh my gosh, I underestimated him hugely, and I’ve not given him the opportunities that he desperately was craving.” You can see Clara tell the story herself here.
Often parents of children diagnosed with autism are told that their child is cognitively delayed and will never read, have a basic understanding of math, or even exhibit human empathy. For any parent who has heard this about your child, my heart sincerely goes out to you.
I’d like to pose a different perspective.
Imagine being trapped inside of your body. You’re locked inside with your thoughts, but you’re unable to express them to anyone. What might you do? How might you feel and act?
My training as a pediatric occupational therapist (OT) educated me about the impaired motor skills of not-so-verbal autistic children. What I eventually became aware of was the profound depth of impairment of the connection between their minds and their musculoskeletal system, which controls their ability to properly breath, speak, point, type, walk, look, etc.
This awareness opened up a world of possibility!
Although there is an impaired connection between their mind and musculoskeletal system, this may have little to do with their ability to think. These motor challenges do impair their ability to express their thoughts and feelings, as well as to perform basic functional tasks.
One way to think about their experience may be to imagine that you’re struggling against an extra thousand pounds of gravity and pressure on your body and brain. This would make expression and movement quite challenging, and you probably wouldn’t be too happy most of the time either.
One of many examples where autistic children may be being missjudged is that they do not exhibit empathy because they often can’t imitate the facial expressions of others. It may simply be that autistic children have a very difficult time coordinating their facial muscles to make an expression, but they are often capable of empathy, they just express it differently.
Are current IQ tests giving us flawed results?
Autistic children are often classified as “low IQ” and cognitively delayed, but current scientific research from the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders is suggesting that tests, such as the WISC-IV, may be underestimating their intelligence. The research is showing that the Raven’s Progressive Matrices (RPM) intelligence test, which minimizes the need for task instructions, experience-specific abilities, and the need for fine motor and speech skills, is giving autistic people scores that are “significantly, and sometimes dramatically” higher than the Wechsler full-scale IQ (FSIQ) test. The RPM intelligence test can be found here and it’s free.
This research again suggests that people with not-so-verbal autism may not have as low an IQ as we have presumed. Many may have rich inner worlds with thoughts, feelings, and emotions similar to our own. I do want to clarify here though that it is my opinion that autistic people have a vast spectrum of intelligence, no different than the rest of us.
What do their own writings tell us?
When we read the writings of not-so-verbal autistic people who are able to type, like Dashiell, we find complex writings letting us know just how aware and attuned they are. They often write about how highly aware they are of the emotional life of others, and that despite their flat expressions, they actually feel a great deal.
They also write about the experience of being locked inside without the ability to express themselves. Some of the most powerful and touching writings I’ve ever read have been from people with not-so-verbal autism. I highly suggest checking out the books The Reason I Jump and Ido in Autismland: Climbing Out of Autism’s Silent Prison.
Is my not-so-verbal child’s IQ higher than I’ve been told?
I realize that even posing this question may open us up to a complete paradigm shift in the way we view our children. The concept of our children being “locked inside” is a heavy thought to consider. My advice is to take your time when considering this possibility, and start looking for subtle signs of more intelligence in your child.
One somewhat simple test to see if your child may be able to read is to put them in front of a computer and watch them. Watch their eye contact with the computer closely and see if they are quickly scanning. At first, you may think that their eye’s are moving too fast and erratically, but my experience has been that many autistic people can read and take in information much faster than people without autism. I expand more on the topic of the intelligence of not-so-verbal autistic children in my free eBook, Autism Simplified for Parents. It’s a quick and easy read with tons of useful, actionable information that will make your parenting life easier.
I’d like to close this post with a quick video that discusses more signs that your not-so-verbal child may have a higher IQ than you’ve been told.