About Autism and Intelligence

I have a little boy. He’s six years old and he’s autistic. But he’s maybe not what you think of when I say ‘autistic’. Or ‘six years old’, maybe not that either.

Autism is a funny thing, it’s something that isn’t very well understood and there are a lot of problems that are often comorbid with it to the extent that they’re considered part and parcel of autism by most people with limited experience with the disorder. For example, take sensory processing disorder. From what I understand, this makes sensory input problematic for kids. It can make a shirt actively painful. It can make it hard to look at faces, or sit in a loud classroom, or deal with bright lights.

I don’t have much experience with SPD, because Robin doesn’t have it. Robin doesn’t have fine motor problems, he can move around just fine (although he’s not very athletic), he rarely has massive meltdowns and he’s more insensitive than sensitive to sensory input. And he doesn’t have any intellectual delays, either. More about that later.

What Robin does have is a fundamental disinterest in other people as a concept.

Most people notice when other people around them do something as a group. If the crowd is moving one direction, they notice, they wonder what’s going on, maybe they go find out.  My 18 month old baby does this, but Robin never has. If somebody tells a person what they’re doing is having an impact on other people, they understand what that means. They may not care, but they understand.

Most people, when they’re babies, like to look at human faces. Robin liked to look at lights. Living things have never interested him very much. He loves his family, he loves to be around us, he loves our attention, but he’s only started noticing strangers exist in the last year or so. They’re interesting oddities to interrogate. And we’re people to help him manage his life.

So the challenges with Robin center around teaching him how to manage his own life, about teaching him to communicate (because he does have some verbal problems) and around teaching him about other people. About how to deal with them, talk to them, get along with them. But first– and this is where there’s the difference that contributed to a diagnosis– we have to teach him to care. We can’t explain that it hurts people to hit them so he shouldn’t do it. We can’t explain that other people don’t like it, so he shouldn’t do it.  Any explanation that ends at ‘other people’ doesn’t actually end there.

It’s quite a lot of work, really. But he’s delayed, not disabled. He’s learning, he’s developing some of this stuff that his brother has at 18 months. His brother actually helps in a way; sibling rivalry is a wonderful thing. I’m pretty sure he’s going to grow up to be as kind and aware as I can teach him to be.

Now, look and see. Look how easily I talk about Robin’s autism. He has problems, we work on them, I think they’re beatable with enough time and patience and attention.

But look back up at where I say that Robin doesn’t have an intellectual delay. I’ll show off art and programs he does but it’s not something I’m ever comfortable talking about directly. Kevin is much better than I am at talking about it. You see, Robin is very, very bright. I often downplay it in face to face conversations, because what’s the point of talking about it? They never hear what I’m trying to say. He is both extremely bright, and autistic. Not an Aspy, that diagnosis is for highly verbal kids with no language delay. He talks, but not easily. He’s never been verbose.

It’s hard to talk about Robin’s intelligence because… let me see how to put this…. Intelligence is a virtue in our society. To many people, intelligence is the virtue. And there’s a bit of oneupsmanship that goes on there, especially among parents. Everybody says their kids are smart, and nobody believes anybody else’s kid is as smart as their parents think they are. I don’t want to engage in that. There’s no point.  I’m not comfortable enough with the subject. Or rather, I’m too aware, from too many angles, of the drawbacks of being so sharp you cut yourself.

Intelligence: it’s a two edged weapon. And it’s particularly vicious when wielded by somebody who is totally free of the spiderweb strands of social awareness that entangle most humans. He sees the loopholes in any instruction he dislikes, immediately, naturally. He works out the most direct path between “I want” and “I have” without any regard for other people. Sure, he can read big words and do multiplication and draw detailed world maps and shade spheres and name the capitals of all the states and draw fonts and… and… and… so what? The real issue here is that he’s going to be bored in school and because he’s autistic, he’s way behind on the ‘sit still and quiet because it’s what’s done socially’ front. Because he’s autistic, when a teacher talks to the class, he doesn’t realize she’s also talking to him.

I’m rambling. I’m thinking about his first grade and about how hard it is to convince people a kid is smart enough to be a problem, because as soon as a parent suggests their kid is smart, everybody else hears ‘brag brag brag’. About how good-intentioned people hear ‘autistic’ and think a quiet room and meltdown avoidance is the order of the day. How if he’s smart enough to read like a fourth grader, he’s smart enough to follow general instructions. Right? Right? Wrong… Because these things aren’t actually linked for him. He needs somebody to explain it, over and over again.

We’ve talked repeatedly with him about how he isn’t going to school to learn academics. He’s there to learn about people. And he understands… intellectually. He’s still learning about why it’s actually valuable, because he doesn’t feel it. And it’s slow going in for him, just like some kids can’t make letters into words, or numbers add up. (The joy many people feel in a social exchange, he feels with PATTERNS. Patterns! Wonderful patterns! And lights! And REALLY BIG THINGS! And patterns that mean things!) And of course the school has to be on board with the idea that a student may not need reading riting rithmatic but may very much need lots of guided practice and philosophical explanations about the value of kindness and social awareness. It’ll be exciting seeing how this year goes…

I’m intensely proud of my son. He’s learning the value of hard work despite his gifts. He tries very, very hard when he wants to. Sometimes he does astonishing things, and sometimes he takes the lazy way out and wants to be praised for it. He’s a kid. He’s not any more mischievous than any other six year old. He’s stubborn and inquisitive and sees no point in doing things he doesn’t understand. He’s not bad. He’s bright, and he’s autistic. Maybe they’re two halves of the same coin, for him, or maybe the intelligence gives him a flexibility that makes his autism less of a burden for him than it is for some other children. We’ll never know. It doesn’t really matter. In the end, he’s just Robin.


3 thoughts on “About Autism and Intelligence

  1. Here is a bit of social philosophy for a bright but autistic six year old:

    There are two kinds of things in the world: people and objects. If you treat people like objects, you will be treated like an object in turn. The process of growing up is the process of learning to treat people like people. Treating people like people is what makes you a person. We do not hit other people. We certainly do not bite other people.

    And sometimes we go on with what the difference between people and objects is. For example, people communicate. They also usually move on their own, but this is secondary. No, babies are not quite people, but see ‘growing up’, above.


  2. Speaking of patterns, if you ever want a few number patterns that can be used as a reward for Robin, let me know.

    Here’s a sample:
    – What’s 8 x 8? What’s 7 x 9?
    – What’s 4 x 4? What’s 3 x 5?
    – What’s 6 x 6? What’s 5 x 7?
    – What’s 10 x 10? What’s 9 x 11?

    What happened there? If I told you that 27 x 27 is 529 (it is), can you then tell me what 26 x 28 is?

    Trying to come up with a reason for why this pattern is there might be beyond him at this point, both in terms of being able to come up with one and in terms of even vaguely caring why this pattern is there and why (assuming he could form the reason in his head) it would be worth verbalizing it so that other people could understand it.


  3. As just a random aside, I have a 7-yo boy with SPD, and it’s not always about being sensitive, it can also be about being INsensitive. For C, a lot of it has been being all about big, bold movements, crashing into things, crashing into people, flinging himself at things, feeling big things with his whole body. Also singing loud, yelling loud, crashing toys into things to make loud noises. Combined with temperature and food texture/taste sensitivity… so some of each, sensitivities and insensitivities. We’re still trying to teach him about personal space and Not Crashing Into People. Whee.


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