Do all individuals with autism have intellectual disabilities? Do all individuals with autism have “savant” abilities like Rain Man? These are two questions I get asked all the time. So, what’s the answer? Well, here are the facts as we know them today.
Let’s address the first question, “Do all individuals with autism have intellectual disabilities?”
Autism is generally associated with intellectual disability, which means that an individual has an Intelligence Quotient (IQ) below 70. While it is true that approximately 70% to 75% of individuals with autism do have intellectual disabilities, autism also occurs in individuals with average, above average and even superior intelligence.
Individuals diagnosed with autism have difficulties in three central areas; social development, communication, and interests/behavior (restricted and repetitive). The manifestation of symptoms is affected by a couple of variables, namely intellectual functioning and age. For example, individuals with autism who possess a higher Intelligence Quotient are likely to show more interest in social interaction, are more likely to be verbal communicators and have the tendency to become preoccupied with special interests or facts rather than becoming preoccupied with objects.
Important to note is that autism and intellectual disability (sometimes termed mental retardation) are two distinct neurological conditions. Yes, there are some similar characteristics, but there are also some significant differences. It is often difficult to obtain a reliable diagnosis when a child has severe autism or mental retardation because of the similarities, namely developmental delay, learning difficulties, communication deficits, delayed adaptive (self-care) skills and delayed social development.
The differences appear when we look at the areas of delayed development in individuals who have autism without intellectual disability. Autism affects brain development specifically in the areas of social skills, communication, and interests and behaviors (restricted and repetitive).
Intellectual disability without autism, however, looks quite different. Intellectual disability produces significant delays in both intellectual functioning and adaptive behaviors. As a result, individuals with intellectual disability experience significant delays not only in social skills, communication skills, and restricted and repetitive interests and behaviors, but also in most if not all other areas of development.
The biggest difference is in the pattern of skill development between the two diagnoses. While individuals with intellectual disability show relatively even (albeit delayed) skill development, individuals with autism typically show uneven skill development, with delays in certain areas of development and distinct strengths or skills in other areas. These skills are also known as “splinter skills”.
This brings us to the next question, “Do all individuals with autism have “savant” abilities like Rain Man?”
I mentioned “splinter skills” above. Such strengths are often seen in the areas of visual processing (such as completing complex puzzles) and auditory memory (the ability to hum a tune in perfect pitch after hearing it). Individuals with these types of skills are often called autistic savants. An autistic savant is an individual who has an unusual gift or ability, one that is clearly above their overall level of functioning and above the norm for the population in general. Autism is a spectrum disorder, meaning there is a significant difference in cognitive abilities, developmental levels, and severity of symptoms across individuals diagnosed. The same can be said regarding savant skills, an individual with autism can have splinter skills (such as memorizing specific dates), talented skills (skilled artist or ability to calculate complex math equation in one’s head), or prodigious skills (playing an entire concerto after listening to it only once).
Texas Boy with Autism, A Musical Genius Here’s a link to a brief video showing a boy with autism who would be considered a “talented” musical savant.
Jacob, A Mathematical Savant Another link to a young boy with autism who would be considered a prodigy.
It is estimated that about 10% of individuals diagnosed with autism have splinter and talented savant skills. It is further estimated that there are only 100 prodigious savants in the world, although I would hazard a guess that there are many more who have not yet been “discovered”.
So, intellectual disability, savant or both? That’s part of the puzzle that is autism, all the combinations seem to fit, and that’s what makes individuals with autism so unique.