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Do IQ Tests Wrongly Label Some with Autism as Intellectually Disabled?

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If a child has autism and doesn't respond to verbal cues, how can an IQ test in which they are asked questions be a real measure of their intelligence?

At the Council for Exceptional Children's annual convention, a pair of researchers from universities in Florida today shared those and other concerns about using some types of IQ tests with children with autism, tests that may wrongly find these children have intellectual disabilities.

"Are we saying there aren't a lot of kids that have autism that don't have [intellectual disabilities]?" said Douglas Carothers, of Florida Gulf Coast University. "We're saying there's no good way to tell."

He noted that many children with autism don't respond to verbal stimuli and may speak little themselves, but some psychologists expect them to respond to questions on an IQ test out loud. If asked to create a sequence from a series of pictures in order to test their social skills, "they may be more interested in the pieces than the whole," Carothers continued.

In fact, the examiner's manual of one IQ test, the WISC-IV, cautions that "it is important not to attribute low performance on a cognitive test to low intellectual ability when, in fact, it may be attributable to physical, language, or sensory difficulties."

Fellow researcher Ronald Taylor, of Florida Atlantic University, said that by some measures, 70 percent of children with autism have also been labeled as intellectually disabled.

"We're wondering, first of all, why does the IQ have to be tested," Taylor said. If schools already know a child has autism, they can determine what supports and resources they need in the classroom based on that assessment.

IQ tests given to children with autism who don't know the person testing them can also pose a challenge.

"Think about the characteristics of the child," Carothers said. "It's really important that the child be really comfortable with the examiner. That's a real tough one to get around."

Some school psychologists in the room said they often note on evaluations of children that test results may underestimate IQ. But they said they are also under pressure from schools to assess students in certain ways: The results may play a large role in deciding what kinds of state tests the student takes, tests that end up being used as measures of schools and teachers.

Carothers and Taylor, who have a forthcoming paper on this issue, said the additional label of a student with autism as intellectually disabled can be stigmatizing, and there are other measures that can work much better, such as a portfolio of their work that demonstrates students' capabilities.

"Do what you have to do to satisfy your districts," Carothers said, "and then do with the kids what serves them best."

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