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A mother speaks:

‘She’s not as bright as her brothers.’ (laughs) ‘Her IQ is XX. She’ll never be a Rhodes Scholar.’

Said in front of a 14 year old autistic girl.

This is one of the objections I have to IQ testing being part of the assessment of autistic children. Apart from the well-recognised fact that IQ testing in autistics is notoriously unreliable (I’m pretty good at doing tests, and yet there is a 15-point difference in my scores on the ones I’ve done), and autistics generally score much lower than their actual ability, telling the parents and child that they are ‘well below average’ is going to have an enormous effect on the child’s perception of themselves and their abilities.

How could it not?

If we take as fairly well-established that for the vast majority of those on the spectrum, simply getting through life is a high stress, high anxiety experience, with constant battering of self-esteem, how is telling a child that a (notoriously unreliable) test has just labelled them as well below average going to do anything but worsen their social and academic performance? So much of achievement is about confidence, both in interpersonal relationships with those who can help you succeed, such as teachers, employers and mentors, and in not letting anxiety affect performance in tests and exams.

[An aside – I have become exam-phobic over the years, failing exams more often than I care to remember. But the last one I took, although vital to my career, a) was free, and b) three attempts were allowed per year. I decided to simply give it a go, without revising or worrying, just to find out how high the bar was set. I came second in the entire region. An object lesson in anxiety destroying performance.]

And if, as here, the parent is going to treat it as an unassailable fact, to be openly discussed along with reminders that the child will never achieve anything worthwhile, there is a double effect. Both at home and at school self-esteem is battered into the ground.

Anyone who thinks “Oh, it’s only one test, it’s all right as long as you praise them in other areas” has no idea of how something like this can eat away at a teen or preteen’s confidence. It is a uniquely vulnerable time. And in the eyes of the general population IQ testing is viewed as both accurate and immutable, a predictor of every type of life success. In this particular instance, the mother had no idea of any of the issues with using IQ as a predictor in autism. She had simply accepted it as fact, and was happy to use it to openly disparage her daughter’s future abilities.

In this age of open disclosure, it is hard to argue for witholding information. But apart from making a child eligible for school support, what, exactly are the advantages of giving parents this number? It is likely to be inaccurate, it is likely to be misused, and it is extremely likely to be damaging. It harks back to that darkness in every human being – I may be stupid, but at least I’m not as stupid as her – and invites more negative comparisons.

I think we need to be clear, as a community, that IQ testing is neither welcome nor relevant, and make sure that all young autistics hear this message early on.

*identifying details have been altered*

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