Cognition part II

August 18, 2010

In the previous post, I wrote about the superficial clues people often rely on when judging intelligence, and what happens when intelligent people have disabilities that keep them from displaying intelligence.   I don’t want to suggest, however, that everyone with a motor disorder is a Stephen Hawking waiting to be discovered.  Conditions that cause motor disabilities can sometimes, but not always, cause other types of disabilities.  Many children with CP, for example, are also diagnosed with intellectual disabilities, or, in some unfortunate cases, mental retardation.

But what does this mean, exactly?  The term mental retardation, which suggests a general quality of “lagging behind” mentally, is currently going out of style, being replaced by intellectual disability.  (If anyone had asked me, I would have voted for “cognitive disability”, because intellectual disability sounds like someone who is hampered by their obsession with tweed suits and the New Yorker, but whatever.)  But what is an intellectual disability?

The American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities defines an intellectual disability as either an IQ under 70 or lack of adaptive skills.  I’ll let you explore the IQ test controversy on your own, but adaptive skills refer to things like reading, carrying on conversations, dressing yourself, and buying groceries.  The problem is that any of these adaptive behaviors can be affected by language and cultural barriers, motor problems, and other disabilities.  Autism, which affects interpersonal skills, dyslexia, which affects reading ability, and Tourette’s syndrome, which causes uncontrollable tics, can all be mistaken for intellectual disabilities, when in fact these conditions do not always involve a low IQ, and are even sometimes associated with high IQs.  In his books, Oliver Sacks describes many perceptual and memory problems that could come across as failures of intelligence (such as the man who actually did mistake his wife for a hat), but that truth is that the brain is so complicated, and it can shine and stumble in so many different ways, that the closer you look, the more amorphous this thing called intelligence seems.

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