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Posted By Patrick

There I was, waking myself up by scanning the Globe and Mail online this morning when I came across something headlined “People with Autism Ace Intelligence Test.” Apparently,  people with autism were about 40% faster than those in a control group at finishing a non-verbal intelligence test that relied heavily on visual processing, although (despite what the headline said) they did not score any higher on average. The real story was that the authors of the study (led by Harvard post-doc Isabelle Soulières, and including the Université de Montréal's Laurent Mottron and Michelle Dawson, who is herself autistic), published in the journal Human Brain Mapping, say their findings may lead to new ways of educating people with autism, as teaching methods could be more effectively structured to take advantage of these visual processing skills. And they also point out that traditional intelligence tests, like the Wechsler, may not accurately measure the intelligence of people with autism because these tests are language-based. The Globe article and the online comments on the web site are interesting for what they say about how we understand intelligence. As one blogger  says, “the interpretation of results [does not] require one to ‘believe’ in intelligence tests. You can just think of it as a mental task assigned to people, and it doesn’t really matter if it’s measuring intelligence or not.” This makes sense to me. The word “intelligence” gets mixed into a study that suggests that people with autism may process information differently. But they’re not necessarily talking about intelligence, or at least don’t need to be. They’re talking about how the brain works to sort out the information that’s coming into it. And it turns out there are different processes for different folks – not the same thing as intelligence at all! This does have a pragmatic consequence for IQ testing, though – it means, as the study’s authors point out, that different types of tests will give different types results for who process info differently, because the tests themselves ask the brain to process information in certain ways. Verbally or visually, for example. So I wonder what other ways of processing information can we come up with? And what relation do these processes bear to our current and historical ideas of intelligence?

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