The Myth of Autism and Exceptional Intellect


Math capabilities of children with autism may be on par with those of typically developing children, but not so with language.

©Bruce Rolff/


There are a number of stereotypes about autism, including the widespread belief that autistic people are endowed with extraordinary intellectual capabilities. There may be some highly intelligent individuals who display some characteristics that casual observers deem as autistic, but studies have not pointed to a structural or functional link in the brain between exceptional intellect and autism. In fact, recent studies that measure intelligence in autism point to a tendency toward lower than average objective measures of cognitive aptitude among those with autism. 

Research About Intelligence in Autism

A recent Chinese study examined 27 autistic children for intelligence evaluation with the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children Fourth Edition and also for facial recognition.1 When compared with age-matched controls, the ASD group had significantly lower scores on full intelligence quotient, on verbal comprehension, perceptual reasoning, processing speed, and working memory.

These results are consistent with other studies that looked at intellectual capacity in autistic children. For example, a study in Australia compared language processing capabilities in high functioning autistic children with those in children with typical development. Those in the high functioning autism group took longer to integrate disambiguating information provided in the course of processing a sentence and to integrate it with the visual information.2

Another study found that children with ASD showed early numerical competencies at preschool age similar to those of typically developing children.3 Overall, these studies seem to show that math capabilities of children with autism may be average compared with age-matched controls, but language capabilities are below average.

These objective studies do not support the belief that children with autism have exceptional math abilities. Personal accounts may be skewed for a number of reasons. It may be that the verbal and social functioning of children with autism causes those around them to expect below average performance, coloring the perception of unexpectedly average math skills as exceptional. It is also possible that some children with autism work harder in math when they receive positive reinforcement for their average performance, raising their abilities through practice and attention to the material.

These objective studies do not support the belief that children with autism have exceptional math abilities.

Understanding Intelligence in Autism

It is important to understand the intellectual capabilities of children with autism because recognition of their academic needs can help them get academic assistance at an early stage. This may raise verbal and math capabilities, which in turn can help them attain educational degrees and professional and social competence.  

Objective measures of intelligence are, of course, not the only measure of important life capabilities. Observant, attentive and supportive parents and teachers may still be able to recognize and nourish inherent talents and abilities that can serve to bring joy to children with autism and help them as they navigate through life.


1. Pan N, Wu GH, Zhang L, et al. Association between intelligence development and facial expression recognition ability in children with autism spectrum disorder. 2017 Mar;19:275-279.

2. Bacin EL, Prendergast LA, Kidd E, et al. Online processing of sentences containing noun modification in young children with high-functioning autism. Int J Lang Commun Disord. 2016;51:137-147.

3. Titeca D, Roeyers H, Hosephy H, et al. Preschool predictors of mathematics in first grade children with autism spectrum disorder. 2014;35:2714-2727.

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