Why the concept of intelligence is problematic

Intelligence is a very loaded attribute. Intelligence is a particularly problematic concept in the autism and disability spaces. 

Firstly intelligence takes a number of forms. There is ‘IQ’ type intelligence, emotional intelligence and social intelligence. There is also resilience and wisdom gathered through experience. None of these attributes make a person any more or less but they do lead to judgement. We live in a society which largely privileges intelligence and views it as a quality which makes some people ‘better’ than others.

Intelligence is an attribute, like having blue eyes or liking the colour purple. But unlike those attributes intellect has a loaded meaning. High intellect is considered a positive quality and people judged as intelligent are considered somehow better than those with lower intellects. There are lots of insults related to intellect – ‘stupid;’ ‘dumb’ ‘idiot’ are all ableist slurs based on a low intellect. This is not OK and intelligence really is just another attribute. It could be considered that being intelligent may make it easier to navigate the world but that is not necessarily true. People with a high intellect can be bullied for it – I was – and can also worry a lot about life.

The measurement of intelligence is fraught, especially in the context of disability. IQ tests are extremely problematic. They are culturally loaded but they can also be extremely misleading for people who use communication methods which aren’t verbal speech (alternative and augmented communication, or AAC). I have a friend called Rosemary who runs a service for people who use non-speech communication. Rosemary has done a lot of work with education departments because the IQ tests used to determine whether someone goes to mainstream school or not do not accurately measure the capability of people who use AAC. Basically the tests are only accurately representative of intellect for those who use verbal speech so when they are applied to someone who uses AAC the results are misleading. When Rosemary used a different IQ test with these kids – one that more accurately measures the capability of people who do not use verbal speech – the change in results was dramatic. Children who had initially been assessed as having an IQ of under 60 points now had a revised score of average and in some cases above average IQ. So administering an inappropriate test robbed these children of the capacity to demonstrate their actual capability and meant in some cases that they were sent to the wrong school.

A lot of autistic people are ‘twice exceptional’ meaning they have a high IQ and a disability. This group can struggle with attitudes of others based in the idea that being intelligent is ‘good’ and having a high IQ should make life easier in all other domains. This in fact is far from the truth. The ‘high functioning’ label can be applied meaning they miss out on support and services they may need. Then there are autistic people who get the ‘low functioning’ label. This group are viewed as having low intellect and low capability. In my experience the people who get a ‘low functioning’ label are usually people who use AAC. Our bias as a society towards spoken communication means those who use communication methods other than speech are somehow considered lesser. This TED talk by author, advocate and AAC user Tim Chan covers off a lot of these issues: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Woy-XzC-UVs 

It is very easy to fall into the trap of judging people by intellect or using ablest slurs related to intellect.  I would say work to check this as it makes life harder for everyone. See intellect as an attribute and nothing more. It is such a loaded thing but it doesn’t need to be.

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8 thoughts on “Why the concept of intelligence is problematic

    1. One constant I come against is “is autism a learning disability(LD)”
      In the uk social services lists an iq of 70 or below as LD.
      So your theory relates well the wrong iq test may incorrectly identify high or low end scores.
      The other issue is stigma. No one intelligent wants to be associated as LD but the very nature of their intellect makes them vulnerable to traditional Teaching methods.
      The norm being the person that can’t grasp the concept is given additional support there and then. The more intellectual may try to solve it their way an Alternative way that takes time but gets there yet detracting from the core subject.
      2 students myopic one sits front of class the other the rear. Equal intellect but the one at the front may try to solve the question on the board as they see it and can visualise. The other has to rely on audio reference and rote learning missing the key visual or asking for help. Maybe they rely on peer support. The outcome can be different for both. If that makes sense.

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  1. One of the most insulting comments I hear from some is, “It’s not rocket science, is it?” What, to someone who’s not a rocket scientist is complicated, is, to a rocket scientist easy. I remember a joke once, where a motorbike mechanic asked a cardiothoracic surgeon why there was a pay discrepancy when they did the same work and the punchline was that the doctor had to operate while it was going. Well, anyone who knows anything about cardiothoracic surgery knows that apart from fitting a stent (usually the domain of an interventional cardiologist) the heart is stopped and a bypass machine used, for valve or aortic repair or replacement or bypass grafts. So, if you went to the doctor and said, “My car needs a tune-up,” the doctor wouldn’t know what to do and if you had a heart attack, other than first aid and calling the ambulance, the mechanic wouldn’t know what to do.
    If someone had measured my intelligence, they could have said, “He struggles with maths but he has a strong memory recall and can spell relatively well.” Probably the most generous thing my Year Three teacher said about me was, “Peter lacks the physical maturity to cope with anything involving his hands, such as handwriting, art, sport, however, his ability to recall general knowledge is advanced.” She said on my report that I was easily led and needed to learn for myself, and what a better teacher might have been able to say was, “Yes, I know you don’t have friends in the class, but those boys are trying to get you to do bad things, so they’re not friends, either. Friends don’t do things to get you into trouble.”

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  2. I have no time for so-called intelligence tests. I’ve never seen a satisfactory (to me anyway) definition of intelligence. Steven PInker comes close: “intelligence is the ability to achieve goals in the face of obstacles.” So I imagine a lot of autistic people would do as well if not better than non-autistic people on many tasks. Your idea has a lot of merit.

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  3. Sometimes it goes the other way, and people with high IQ are not respected for that, and instead are treated badly because of low EQ or lack of social skills. For some of us, IQ and academic skills are all we’ve got going for us. It’s frustrating when that is not valued and we’re not given the chance to contribute to society as much as we potentially could.

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  4. I loved this! Have you read Scott Barry Kaufman’s books on intelligence? He explains really well about the different types of intelligence (outside of emotional and social, specific things like visual-spatial). I really like his book Ungifted! He was a “special needs” student that was told he’d never amount to anything and ended up going to university and writing several books and articles!

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  5. Intellectual intelligence is a two-edged sword. For me growing up it meant being punished/bullied by many of my peers and some teachers to the point that I was so embarrassed by it that I desperately tried to hide it. However, I had apparently been tested (although I am unaware of when or how) and others had enormously high expectations for me. Of course I was bound to disappoint. I remember after failing spectacularly my first year of University and having my scholarship suspended, a counselor interviewing me and saying I was easily capable of winning a University Medal – I had no idea what that even was!!! Needless to say it took me more than 20 years to complete an undergraduate degree, even with the support of my family. As for other types of intelligence – in some areas I am definitely “disabled”

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