January 24

Autism vs. Intellectual Disability


Recently, I made a little promise to myself that I would cover this topic but got sidetracked with the holiday hoopla and then needing to rest. This topic came to me several months ago when I was on Instagram and saw a video on my favorite autism account Living with Lilac. The mom of the autistic daughter, a twin by the name of Lilac, was discussing the difference between an autism and an intellectual disability. Her daughter has both and she wanted to educate the public that there is a distinction. It was something I had thought about for a while, but it was refreshing to hear someone else say it. I will discuss this distinction further for clarification purposes and to help others gain perspective on what autism is really about.
Autism is not an intellectual disability but a developmental one. Autism and an intellectual disability are not one in the same. Meaning that you can have autism and not an intellectual disability and vice versa. However, people wrongly assume that people with autism are not intelligent because of their social deficits. This is the farthest thing from the truth.

Actually, people with autism tend to have higher IQs than the general population. They are very academically gifted. Some autists may also have creative intelligence where they can make or do things that us neurotypicals can’t seem to master as easily. Their gifts are numerous but one thing that atypicals have in common is the lack of social or emotional intelligence.
Emotional intelligence is the hallmark of how we as human beings are able to thrive in all areas of our life. Human connection is what most human beings crave and live for, including autists. But for autists, it does not come so easily. They have to fight to learn how to communicate in a way that is very unnatural for them. Even those considered “high functioning” struggle with how to make genuine connections with others including those in their family of origin. For some, it’s not something they feel they need and for others, it’s something they desperately want but don’t know how to establish naturally. To lack emotional intelligence is a BIG barrier in being able to establish healthy and fulfilling relationships. Even though academic intelligence can take you far in life, it can’t help you when it comes to knowing how to create genuine connections with other human beings.
So, let’s talk about what it’s like to have an intellectual disability. An intellectual disability is when you have a cognitive impairment that negatively affects your ability to learn. If a child or adult has a low IQ, it can make it difficult for them to progress in ALL areas of their life and reduces their chance to be able to live independently. Intelligence is what you are born with, but it can be nurtured to grow with the right tools and in the right environment. I don’t believe IQ to be a static thing that can’t be altered in a positive or negative way. Lots of things may cause your IQ to go up and down some points over the years but generally you won’t see a significant jump unless some major life event/s have happened (i.e., TBI or psychological trauma).
However, for those who are autistic and have an intellectual disability, they are impacted very differently than the neurotypical population. There are stunted in more than one way. This is what some would call “low functioning.” I really really hate that term because it does not speak to the possibilities that this child/adult may have and opportunities for growth. But that is what our society has used to determine those who will be successful and those who won’t. It doesn’t leave space to imagine the possibilities that even children or adults with autism and an intellectual disability can do. However, for most of these folks, simple tasks can be challenging, and a lot of personal and professional support is required to help with them their functioning.
Another great autism account that I follow is The Autism Cafe. She is autistic and has what she calls a “Level 3” autistic son which means that her son has severe autism. Watching her and her son is a great way to see the difference between having just autism and having an autism and an intellectual disability. Her son, Charlie, needs to have a lot of professional support in place in order to learn the necessary life skills that can help him with his day-to-day functioning. She, however, can function without any supports to parent appropriately and make a living. She has what many would consider “high functioning autism” but the truth of the matter is that she is simply someone who is autistic that does not have an intellectual disability. In contrast, her son Charlie has autism and an intellectual disability that impacts his ability to function independently.
My son, Trey, has autism but scored very low on IQ when tested three years ago. He was never officially diagnosed with an intellectual disability by the school psychologist. However, he can read, write, do arithmetic, tie his shoes, use the bathroom unassisted, all the things that allow for him to function on some level in society. In my professional career, I used to take part in disability eligibility services for children. I was told in a meeting that IQ score didn’t matter as long as his/her/they’s level of functioning allowed for them to be able to do day to day tasks independently without difficulty. The review team was more concerned with what you call, adaptive functioning. I was told once that their standard for this was “just as long as they know their name and can tie their shoes” that they consider them to have a good degree of adaptive functioning. Now of course, this is a very low measure. I would like to see discussion on the likelihood of the child’s ability to attain future skills like “Apply for a job when they get older” or “Get themselves from point A to B (location wise)” and other types of problem-solving skills but disability review teams are only interested in the here-and-now and basic life skills. They are less concerned about academic achievement and more concerned about how independent that child/adolescent can be without any professional support.
I hope that this gives clarity to what can be a very confusing topic for most. Please feel free to share this blog with others that you know are part of the autism community whether they are autistic or love someone who is. I am open to feedback so please feel free to drop some comments below. I do not mind those who disagree with me because I believe that there is always an opportunity to learn on both ends. I do not pretend to know everything and appreciate those who have a different perspective than mine. All are welcome here just as long as we remain respectful and gentle…

Love and light,



Alliance Health, Alliance Health MCO, Autism and intellectual disability in adults, Autism and intellectual disability in children, Autism and intellectul disability, Autism caregiver support groups in NC, Autism parent support groups in Durham, autism parent support groups in nc, Autism parent support groups in Raleigh, Autistic with intellectual disability, Care coordination in NC, Disability eligibility in NC, Innovations waiver in NC, intellectual disability, Intellectual disability and autism, Living with Lilac, Managed care organizations in NC, MCOs in NC, The Autism Cafe

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