December 19, 2019

Autism & high IQ

Last updated on February 15, 2021

Can an autistic person have a high IQ?

(This is an actual question people ask)

The short answer is yes, obviously!

A photomanipulation of Einstein writing ‘Duh!’ on a blackboard.

But read on to understand why gifted people are often tested for autism.


Bell curve

IQ shows a normal distribution (often called a bell curve), as you can see in the image below.

A diagram showing the normal distribution of IQ.

What the image also shows is the 68–95–99.7 rule, where:

  • Around 68.27% of people fall within one standard deviation of the mean IQ (100).
  • Around 95.45% of people fall within two standard deviations of the mean IQ.
  • Around 99.73% of people fall within three standard deviations of the mean IQ.

Or in other words:

  • About 68% of the general population has an IQ between 85 and 115.
  • About 95% of the general population has an IQ between 70 and 130.
  • About 99.73% of the general population has an IQ between 65 and 145.
  • The remaining 0.27% are the outliers on both ends (with IQs below 65 and above 145).

If you want to know more about how the bell curve works, watch the video below by Matt Parker.

Many things follow the same bell curve. Think about height for example. Most of us are around the same height (average), but some of us—like many professional basketball players—are much taller.

For example, Serge Ibaka from the Toronto Raptors (my son’s special interest, and thus well-known to me) is 7 feet! That is obviously much taller than most people. So while most of us would count among that 68% in terms of height, Serge will be on the right tail end of the bell curve.


What IQ measures

IQ measures specific things. First of all, it measures skills that are important to society. And it also measures the ability to make predictions, memory, and puzzle-solving ability (i.e. the ability to make connections and see patterns).

These are skills we autistics tend to excel at. We are amazing at predictions, and we are excellent puzzle solvers which is why research by Anton Gollwitzer et al. from 2019 indicates that we make great psychologists due to higher social psychological skill.[1]Autism spectrum traits predict higher social psychological skill I have talked about the advantages of being autistic as a psychotherapist before:

An autistic therapist

So that gives many of us an advantage. Articles based on the research study indicate being surprised about this. As an autistic psychotherapist, I’m not so surprised. And I suspect that to many autistics, this doesn’t really come as a surprise either, given our often analytical nature even in social interactions.

But what is particularly surprising is that autistics have an inverted bell curve for IQ!

Embrace Autism | Autism & high IQ | diagram InvertedBellCurve

In other words, there are relatively few autistics with an average IQ; we tend to be at either extreme of intelligence (both high and low). Call it extreme intellectual polarization if you will.


IQ in autistics

In the image below, the first bar graph indicates the IQs of Dutch autistic population as measured by the Nederlands Autisme Register (NAR), the Dutch Autism Register; the second bar graph indicates the IQs of the general population.

A diagram showing the distribution of IQ in autistic people registered by NAR compared to the general public.
Based on a diagram by NAR.

The lighter the color blue, the higher the IQ. Look at how much more autistic people had an IQ of 70 or lower compared to neurotypicals (7.5% compared to 2.3%).

But also notice how 53.1% (37.3% + 15.8%) of autistic people in the autism register have an above-average IQ! Almost 16% of us have an IQ higher than 130, compared to 2.3% in the general population.


Statistics

So breaking it down:

  • 7/10 of neurotypical people have an average IQ (80–115); whereas
  • 2/10 of autistic people have an average IQ.
Average IQ (80–115)

Out of 10:

  • NT= 👨 👩 👨 👩 👨 👩 👨 = 7
  • AU= 👨‍🦰 👩‍🦰 = 2
Above Average IQ (116–130)

Out of 10:

  • NT= 👨 = 1
  • AU= 👨‍🦰 👩‍🦰 👨‍🦰 👩‍🦰 = 4
Gifted IQ (130+)

Out of 100:

  • NT= 👨 👩 = 2
  • AU= 👨‍🦰 👩‍🦰 👨‍🦰 👩‍🦰 👨‍🦰 👩‍🦰 👨‍🦰 👩‍🦰 👨‍🦰 👩‍🦰 👨‍🦰 👩‍🦰 👨‍🦰 👩‍🦰 👨‍🦰 👩‍🦰 = 16 (That’s more likelihood!)

So while more than half of autistics (53.1%) has above average intelligence, only 15.9% of neurotypicals does.


Based on these statistics, autistics have a far better chance of having a high IQ than non-autistics.

So perhaps a more logical question would be: Can a non-autistic person have a high IQ?


For more about autism and intelligence, read:

Autism & high intelligence
This article
was written by:
dr-natalie-engelbrecht
I’m a dually licensed registered psychotherapist and naturopathic doctor, and a Canadian leader in trauma, PTSD, and integrative medicine strictly informed by scientific research.And not only do I happen to be autistic, but my autism plays a significant role in who I am as a doctor and how I interact with and care for my patients and clients.

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