On Intelligence, Perhaps

So I’m back in Lifeskills for a few weeks, hanging with my favorite AAC-using kids, and it’s got me thinking about the nature of intelligence and intellectual disability.  And so I will ramble and look for the words.

The first thing I remember is Morris expressing disbelief that some Lifeskills kids up at the high school were learning about electrons and atoms and all that, and me trying to explain that actually, I got Brandon understanding different types of circuits and how they work.  He might not remember it the next day, but he got it.

I remember, junior year, when I first started working in Lifeskills at the high school, realizing that the way people think of the intellectually disabled–as “slow”–was profoundly incorrect.  I remember saying to someone “It’s not that they’re slow.  It’s that whole steps are missing.” It was my first realization that the conventional thinking on intelligence was badly misguided.

In Child Development last semester, we talked a lot about intelligence being a measure of adaptivity and cognitive skills.

I’m sorry, these are a lot of random thoughts which appear, at first glance, to be disconnected.  But they’re all elements of my hypothesis, and I’d like to lay them all out at once before I start in.

Cognitive skills are things like working memory, memorization ability, processing speed, meta-cognition, decentration, classification, etc.  They are the tools you use to think with.  And I guess that it’s bewildering to some, but Peter and Daniel–both functionally nonverbal, very poor language even with AAC devices, both with virtually no expressive reading comprehension, both doing some work far below grade level–in other words, both labeled Intellectually Disabled–have absolutely amazing cognitive skills.  When they aren’t being asked to talk, they are as fast as any AP Calculus student I’ve met–faster, even.

How can a boy who can’t reliably answer a wh- question about a paragraph he just read complete Punnet squares, page through a device so fast that it shuts down, or just generally be so smart?

Some people describe Autistic intelligence as splintered, for precisely the reasons I’m outlining here.  Along with an amazing set of cognitive skills is a complete lack of executive function, a disabling absence of adaptive behavior, and language skills so poor that the composition of a simple sentence, let alone answering one, is virtually impossible at this time.

Peter and Daniel are bright.  They are also profoundly disabled, maybe even Intellectually Disabled.

Does the mind rebel at the idea of labeling these boys as such?  After all, they’re so smart!  They don’t fit the stereotypical box of Intellectual Disability.

So the problem lies with our box.

The fact is, intelligence is complicated, multi-factorial, ill-defined, and above all, fluid.  Take, for example, Aiden.  Last year, he was for all intents and purposes non-lingual–apparently completely oblivious to any form of language directed at him.  But last Monday, I watched as he sat at a computer and matched sentence after sentence spoken aloud to one of three pictures provided.  And then I watched as, seated at a table with an array of objects laid out in front of him, he responded to the query “what do you comb your hair with?” by selecting a comb.  He can even use a modified pictorial-exchange system to communicate what toy he would like to play with.

He is still the same Aiden who doesn’t understand that if you put an open drink container in your lunch box it will fall over and spill.  I don’t know how to account for his breakthroughs?  Did he finally make some connection that allowed him to understand that pictures symbolize objects and that the shapes within them are meaningful, not just patterns of color?  Did he manage to break through a wall that was keeping him from coordinating his behavior and his understanding?  Did he finally just start looking at the options provided and considering them, rather than always picking the one on the right?

I don’t know.  I just know that three words have been falling out of my mouth this past week more than they ever have before:  “You’re so smart!”.

But how intelligent can you be, really, when you cannot adapt–when you’ll be flummoxed if I hide your toothpaste, or if, when cooking, you run out of flour?  You can’t live independently if you can’t adapt at all when things differ from the procedure you’ve been taught, and can you be considered intelligent if you cannot assimilate and accommodate basic new information or slightly different circumstances?  Cognitive skills are great, but if you’re getting stuck in a useless rut all the time, they won’t be of any help.

I’m not convinced that lacking language is the cruel blow it’s often thought of, and there will be more on that later. But being nonadaptive?  That’s a huge problem.  That can threaten your survival in a unique and basic way.  And the more I work with the Intellectually Disabled, the more I am convinced that the AAIDD is on the right track, defining adaptive behavior as the main concern when measuring and accommodating Intellectual Disability.

Cognitive Skills, Language Skills, and Adaptivity are all intertwined but separate components of intelligence. The only common thing from one ID person to another is the lack of adaptivity.  Shana has average language, moderately poor cognitive skills, and moderately poor adaptivity.  Daniel has poor language, excellent cognitive skills, and I don’t know about his adaptivity.  The point is…

The point I’m trying to make is…

We’re all more alike than different.

People have this picture in their minds of the Intellectually Disabled as confused aliens, when nothing could be further from the truth.  Their cognitive structures may not have a piece or two that yours does; it might not be as flexible; but in the end their is, no matter how profound the disability, an intact cognitive structure.  And it is still capable of impressive feats.

And so, I ask you:  why can’t Peter be intelligent?  Why should that come as a surprise?  Capable of living independently: probably not.  So what?  That doesn’t mean his mind is a void.  It means that it works very differently, that there is some impairment.  It doesn’t mean that it is uniform, a tragedy, nonexistant.  Ability is, if nothing else, fluid.  Mental abilites are the same way.

More and more, I am coming to the conclusion that intelligence is too ill-defined to be meaningful.  Because Peter and Daniel are smart, regardless of which program they are in at school.  Compared to them, some neurotypicals are absolute idiots.  It is more useful, more accurate, to talk about adaptivity and cognitive skills and language ability, which together comprise cognitive or intellectual ability.  It is important, too, as we shift our discussion, to recognize that abilities can be uneven and dissociated, regardless as to whether or not this is typical.

And above all:  we must not underestimate.  We must not let looks deceive us.  We must remember that no human is truly non-communicative, non-cognitive, or non-adaptable.  We must change the conversation such that the closer you get to such a state, it is no longer true that the less likely you are to be thought of as human, let alone intelligent.

Intelligence, if it means anything to me, is a light, a brightness behind someone’s eyes, a spark thrown off by the working gears of their mind.  And to say that someone lacks this essential human trait because they have a disability?

Is morally repugnant to me.

Julia Bascom’s On Intelligence, Perhaps first appeared on her now-defunct blog, and is resurrected here with permission.  Julia is currently also blogging at flashback dream sequence.

on 08/23/10 in Autism, featured | No Comments | Read More

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