Is Autism an Intellectual Disability?

Intellectual disability (or ID) is a term that describes a person that has limitations in cognitive functioning and life skills, including communication, social, and self-care competencies.

ID originally referred to individuals diagnosed with mental retardation – people who have low-level ability to adapt to one’s environment and to develop life skills that are required for independent living.

It is suggested that an IQ (intelligence quotient) score of around 70 to 75 can reflect a significant limitation in intellectual functioning. Even though an IQ test is no longer required for a diagnosis of intellectual disability, it is commonly used when a child’s behavior indicates signs of a disability. For this reason, many experts continue to incorrectly label autism as an intellectual disability with limited ability for individuals to grow and develop mental functioning.

An Autistic Person’s Needs are Not Related to Their IQ

IQ is not always indicative of an individual’s intrinsic ability to grow as an individual and to develop Dynamic Intelligence, which is crucial to functioning effectively in complex environments and having a quality of life.

Stephen E. Gutstein, PH.D., Founder of the RDI® program, says “The terms high-functioning and low-functioning have been around for years, but the truth is that these terms don’t effectively describe the autism spectrum. These terms were first used in the 1980s to distinguish between autistic people with intellectual disabilities and those without. But we’ve since learned that an autistic person’s needs aren’t related to their IQ, and IQ does not always impact functioning. That’s why this type of language is not only outdated, but harmful.

Related article ‘High-Functioning’ vs. ‘Low-Functioning’ Autism

The Myth: Autism and Intellectual Disability

It is a myth that all autistic people have an intellectual disability. The truth is that 2/3 of people on the spectrum have average or above-average IQs.

It is also a myth that IQ scores obtained when autistic children are aged two and three are valid baselines that can be used to measure treatment progress. The fact is that IQ is not an indicator of future progress. IQ tests measure static intelligence. Whereas (RDI®) treatment progress is measured by how well the child can navigate the dynamic world.

Read more at Sifting Truth from Myth in Autism Land

The Autistic Self Advocacy Network describes autism as “A normal part of life, and (it) makes us who we are.”

They go on to say:

“There is no one way to be autistic. Some autistic people can speak, and some autistic people need to communicate in other ways. Some autistic people also have intellectual disabilities, and some autistic people don’t. Some autistic people need a lot of help in their day-to-day lives, and some autistic people only need a little help. All of these people are autistic, because there is no right or wrong way to be autistic. All of us experience autism differently, but we all contribute to the world in meaningful ways. We all deserve understanding and acceptance.”

Quincy Hansen is an autistic adult, public speaker, and author. She writes about her observations of flawed IQ statistics and the frequent mislabeling of autistics as intellectually disabled in her blog:

“There is … one autism statistic that has always bothered me, yet it’s repeated over and over again as if it’s doctrine. This statistic is the claim that 40% of autistic people are also intellectually disabled.

For most people, if they take an IQ test at one point and then take the same test again at a later date, their score should be roughly the same assuming no such events like a traumatic brain injury or substance abuse occur in between. But this is not the case for many autistic people. Some autistic people can take the same IQ test over and over again and score all over the board without any consistency among scores. …

You can also look to the personal stories of many autistic people to find that a seemingly low IQ score is often not the result of a lack of cognition, but rather by a lack of communication. So often you’ll see autistic people, frequently non-speaking or minimally speaking autistic people, who were measured as being intellectually disabled and went through their whole childhood assumed to be unintelligent. Then, upon learning to better communicate with neurotypical people … it is discovered that they weren’t intellectually impaired at all, and actually are highly intelligent.

If you’re the parent of an autistic child with a low measured IQ, I hope this can give you hope. Just because the doctor says your three-year-old nonverbal child’s measured IQ is 53, that absolutely does not mean that you should give up on your child’s intelligence. Always presume competence.

Intelligence Quotient: Inaccurate Indicator of Future Potential

Even if the world took a step backward today and began diagnosing autism solely based on an individual’s intelligence quotient, it would be far from accurate, and it would not be a solid indicator of future potential.

A recent study outlined in an article published by, IQ Isn’t Set in Stone, suggests that IQ can fluctuate amongst young people. “The findings of a new study add evidence to the latter theory: IQ seems to be a gauge of acquired knowledge that progresses in fits and starts.

“Teens’ personalities, work ethic, and the home environments are important. … There’s a lot of variability in neural development during adolescence and in young adulthood as well,” says Stephen Ceci, a professor of developmental psychology at Cornell University.

He says this study should give educators and parents pause. “It should caution all of us against assuming that one low IQ score, at one time, is capturing all that an individual is capable of,” Ceci says.

Many researchers still say there’s loads of evidence to show that IQ scores do reveal something essential about a child’s intellectual gifts. Though increasingly, Ceci says, there’s a consensus that one test is not deterministic. It can’t accurately assess a person’s talents or future potential.”

RDI® is a Developmental Approach through Guiding

The RDI® program can give you the tools you need to guide your child’s growth and neural development. We believe that all brains, including those of people with developmental disabilities, can adapt and learn to function in a “normal” way because the brain is capable of adapting to any challenge.

And you won’t be alone as your child’s guide – the RDI® Online Learning Community can give you the support and resources your family needs.

The Community offers the most up-to-date autism research and exclusive RDI® tools, resources, articles, and presentations, as well as support from real people – RDI® professionals, adults on the autism spectrum, and other parents just like you.


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