Sunday, October 25, 2015

How IQ Tests Hurt Kids with Asperger's Syndrome

Sometimes I really hate IQ tests. There is a good reason why kids typically are not allowed to see their results. A high score can go to their head, and a low score can make them feel like they've been given a life sentence. 

Before I continue, let me clarify something: I'm not one of those people who say that IQ tests are meaningless. They're not. Steven Pinker said it best in his book The Blank Slate:

People who say that IQ is meaningless will quickly invoke it when the discussion turns to executing a murderer with an IQ of 64, removing lead paint that lowers a child’s IQ by five points, or the presidential qualifications of George W. Bush.

If someone gets a high score on an IQ test, it is most likely accurate. You can't cheat on an IQ test and you can't fake your way through it. On the other hand, if you get a low score, the test might not be telling the entire story and can even be misleading. You know what happens: a child gets a low score on either the verbal or non-verbal sections of an IQ test (or both), their ass gets slapped with a label, and their parents told the kid has a learning disability. Good thing the kid doesn't overhear this conversation because, like I said, it can feel like a life-sentence. And it really can be tough for kids with Asperger's Syndrome because it is very common for them to score very high on the verbal portion but average or lower on the non-verbal portion (or vice-versa).

I first saw my IQ scores when I was in 5th grade (age 11). At the end of school one day, I was called to the principal's office where I was handed a thick envelope, which I was told to give to my parents. "Your parents are expecting this," said the principal. Oh, how extraordinarily naïve to think that you can give an 11-year-old kid a thick envelope to give to their parents and expect them not to intercept it. It's an especially naïve expectation if the kid knows that they're different and also knows that a lot of people, including their parents, think they're something wrong with them. And especially if the kid knows that their mother is planning on sending them to a psychologist. 

So, yes, of course I opened the envelope the minute I got home. It was a psychological evaluation from when I was in 2nd grade (age 8 years, 6 months), with an IQ test included. Reading the psychological evaluation-- which in retrospect described all the signs of the then-unheard-of Asperger's Syndrome-- was traumatic, but that's another blog post altogether. I saw the IQ scores-- my verbal was measured at 136, but it was my non-verbal of 102 that upset me. Hell, it wasn't even the number that upset me. It was declarations like this:

On an additional measure of visual motor functioning, Julie was asked to copy geometric designs. Again her weakness in the non-verbal area was evident; Julie scored from 6 months to 1 year behind her age mates.    
Okay, seriously? My visual motor skills were 6 months to a year behind my peers? I was drawing better than most of my peers. In fact, kids often came to me to ask me to draw things for them! Do you think someone with poor visual-motor skills could have drawn this at age 8 years 6 months?:

Yes, let's talk about my spatial reasoning abilities here. While it's true that I was behind in learning to tie my shoes and learning gross motor skills like learning to ride a bike (I didn't learn the former until age 7 and the latter until age 9), my visual motor skills were clearly superior in other ways. Look at this drawing. This isn't just a straight-up-and-down character that most kids that age draw. This character has one leg in front of the other, executing a pose that has some attitude in it. You can tell what he's trying to convey based on the hand on his hip, the wink in his eye, the crooked grin, and one leg in front of the other. I had a natural understanding at that age that drawings are the most effective when they give the illusion of being in 3 dimensions!

As for the shapes that I was asked to copy? I really don't know. Chances are I didn't care because I thought they were boring. I didn't know I was being tested, and it's possible I just wanted to get them out of the way.

Then the evaluation reiterated its declaration of my "poor motor skills":

Visual motor skills are 6 months to 1 year below age expectations, and Julie’s handwriting is poor.
This is poor? I think this handwriting sample from around that time is typical of most kids of that age:

So there I was, age 11, reading this evaluation that suggested that I didn't have age-appropriate motor skills, the very skills that are necessary for being able to draw. When my mother came home, I shoved the evaluation in her face and demanded answers. I think I said something like, "What's the meaning of this?" and my mother told me I wasn't supposed to be looking at it, that it was meant for the psychologist I was going to soon be seeing. Well, again, how naïve… My mother hadn't want me to see the IQ scores, of course, but the horse was out of the barn, and she knew that I was upset. So to make me feel better she showed me results of an IQ test that I had taken two years prior to that one, in which the results were higher: 143 for verbal, 136 full scale, and… I don't remember what non-verbal was. It was definitely higher than on the other test, I think 115 or so. Full scale is not calculated by averaging verbal and non-verbal together, so to know for sure I'd have to find the results of this test again.

Why such a vast difference in results for tests taken by the same person? Damned if I know. Perhaps I was having a bad day on the second test. In any case, I'm sorry that I ever found these results, but it's a moot point because I know eventually I would have started asking questions-- my brother always did better in school than me, especially in math and science-- and my parents would not have been able to keep the results hidden once I reached adulthood. While looking for the psychological evaluation again years later, at age 17, I accidentally found my brother's IQ scores; they had somehow gotten chucked into my folder. He'd kill me if I revealed what they were, but let's just say that suspicions I'd had about him were confirmed.  

At the time that I found those scores, it really didn't bother me. But sometimes things happen in my life that make my mind wander to the IQ scores: Right now I'm taking a JavaScript class in hopes of getting myself a career as a web developer. I am having a really tough time with this class and am even behind most of the other students. I keep thinking about my non-verbal IQ scores and often find myself wondering if it is indeed a life-sentence, the handwriting on the wall that I won't be able to learn this material, that I'm just not smart enough. It's so awful to feel that way, even if I know that it's not logical.

And yes, I know it's not logical. In fact, psychologist Tony Attwood even said that the gap between verbal and non-verbal scores tends to close somewhat as the kid gets older. 

My IQ test had also said:

Weaker areas are those involving the ability to learn new non-verbal information, and the ability to attend, concentrate, and plan ahead.

And in light of that declaration as well as Tony Attwood's comment about the closing of the verbal/non-verbal gap, let me just leave you with this schematic of a plane that I drew when I was 13:

And the final product: