Many people confuse autism and intellect. Autism is a neurologic condition of behavior, and intellect is a neurologic function of thinking skills. Autism occurs across ALL levels of intellect. Learn more about the differences.
Confusion about Autism and Intellect
Intellect is a word used in brain sciences to refer to thinking abilities that are largely stable over time. Much of the emphasis of intellect refers to reasoning and problem solving with words and pictures.
Autism is a neurologic condition related to behavioral patterns. None of the 7 criteria for autism spectrum disorder refer to thinking skills or intellect.
Autism never implies impaired thinking skills!
Autism and impaired intellect may occur together, but autism occurs across the entire range of intellect.
Intellect Isn't Everything, But...
Although we know that intellect isn't everything, it is one piece of a larger picture related to how the person is functioning and what challenges s/he faces. Information specific to the individual is very important to know. This is where measurement and data-gathering come into play.
Although individuals with autism may have functional or very high intellect, it is also true that the intellectual profile is more often uneven inside the spectrum than outside. That is, the ASD individual may have significant strengths and challenges within thinking skills, whereas the neurotypical individual tends to have an even profile (generally average, generally low average, etc). Identifying these peaks and valleys is another individualized data point that is important when designing approaches to help the specific person.
Because of uneven cognitive profiles, it is not advised to use abbreviated intellectual measures. Those are quicker, but they are more likely to give a false overall impression, because they may tap into significant strengths but miss weaknesses, or vice versa.
Don't mistake Intellect for:
Rote memory: Sometimes we say that someone with significant trivia/facts in their mind (like the temperature on venus) is "bright" or "intelligent." In fact, as far as the brain is concerned, intellect and rote memory are located in different places and do not hang together all the time.
Behavior: I once heard a teacher watch a student (with undiagnosed ASD) who was having a meltdown say "I don't know what's wrong with him. He's not stupid." That's right. He was, in fact, a brilliant artist, and had normative intellect. However, he struggled with neurologic behavior patterns. Don't try to predict how someone should behave based on intellect. Neurologically, the two are not linked.