Intelligence Tests for Children With Autism

Most of the time, child psychologists and other professionals rely on the same IQ tests to measure the intelligence of all children. Based on outcomes from those tests, many children with autism have tested as having low intelligence.

Recent findings (and new tests), however, suggest that typical intelligence tests, based on information collected from typical children, are inappropriate for children with autism. As a result, most of the time, autistic children receive inappropriate IQ tests that may even be administered improperly.

Young Boy Playing the Blocks
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Should IQ Tests Be Administered to Kids With Autism?

Typical IQ tests are built around the assumption that test-takers can understand and use spoken language at an age-appropriate level. Children with autism, however, almost never have age-appropriate communication skills. This means that they start at a disadvantage. In addition, children with autism may react badly to a new situation and an unknown tester. Even the physical conditions under which they're asked to take the test (usually a room with bright fluorescent lights) can create challenges.

According to James Coplan, MD, a developmental pediatrician and researcher specializing in autism, intelligence tests for children with autism should be administered by "someone who's comfortable with and capable of working with kids who are off the map. Who understands what makes the kid tick. Some reports look like they're written off a computer disk."

It's important to note that some research also suggests that children with autism are simply less motivated to take or do well on an IQ test because they are less concerned with or aware of others' judgments and expectations. Providing additional non-social motivators, such as small prizes for compliance, can make a big difference in test outcomes.

How Do Professionals Measure Nonverbal Intelligence?

Since young autistic children are often nonverbal or have significant processing language and responding verbally, Dr. Coplan notes that verbal responses may not be a good measure of IQ, nor a child's ability to manage interpersonal relationships, sensory input or motor skills. In fact, he says, "Nonverbal intelligence is the single biggest factor influencing the outcome."

How do you measure nonverbal intelligence? Dr. Coplan recommends the comprehensive Test of Non-Verbal Intelligence (TONI), saying that children who do poorly on typical intelligence tests may do very well on the TONI. The test looks more directly at what children know than other tests—not at how well children can use language to communicate what they know. What's more, the test is administered nonverbally.

By around one year, a child should be able to show that he knows an object still exists, even when it's out of sight. Games, such as peek-a-boo, become meaningful at this point.

At 12 to 14 months, says Dr. Coplan, a child should be able to use objects as tools, solve simple problems and show an interest in cause and effect. Autistic children, however, may do all of these things idiosyncratically. For example, Coplan describes one parent as saying, "My child uses my hands as if they were surgical instruments." By age 2, children should be combining different things together to see what they do. Stacking and dumping are signs of this type of development. "Typical children will use language," says Dr. Coplan, "but adaptive skills (fasteners, clothes on and off, etc.) are all nonverbal problem-solving skills you find at 36 months."

Other tests for intelligence measure fewer aspects of intelligence but may also be useful. The Raven Matrices measures a child's ability to identify patterns and reproduce information. The Bender Gestalt tests involve copying pictures (and require physical output). Depending upon the child, these and other additional tests may be helpful in determining the best treatment plan.

7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading

By Lisa Jo Rudy
Lisa Jo Rudy, MDiv, is a writer, advocate, author, and consultant specializing in the field of autism.