We don’t think of highly gifted people as mentally disabled. Perhaps we should


4th April 2015

I’m intrigued by this recent study suggesting that intellectual gifts and learning disabilities, far from lying on opposite ends of a spectrum of intelligence, sometimes go hand in hand. Intrigued, but not surprised.

Very bright people can be odd – we all know that. The eccentric genius is one of the clichés of history and fiction. But it’s rooted in observation. One thinks of wild-haired Oxford dons at high table, singing music hall songs in iambic pentameter while spraying their neighbours in Brown Windsor soup. Or the story of a distinguished academic banned from dining in his own college after – so legend has it – reinforcing his argument about the intellectual failings of women by exposing himself in front of horrified guests.

Some of this eccentricity is deliberately cultivated (and magnified by booze); sometimes it is charmingly spontaneous; occasionally there’s the whiff of mental disorder. But any such disorder is usually assumed to be an aspect of a certain sort of high intelligence. Asperger’s syndrome is the diagnosis du jour – a difficulty interacting with people that’s not only associated with genius in the popular mind but also ascribed to it. An article on www.asperger-syndrome.me.uk lists famous Aspergers sufferers: Sir Isaac Newton, Michelangelo, George Orwell, Jane Austen, Mozart and Beethoven. (And Susan Boyle – not in my top ten list of musical prodigies, but others may disagree.) Update: I should have made it clearer that the list is preposterous.

How does this square with the US research I mentioned at the top, which reckons that 14 per cent of intellectually gifted children may also have a learning disability, compared to four per cent of the general population? At first glance it doesn’t throw much light on the Asperger/genius notion, since the disabilities include ADHD (about which I’m sceptical), dyslexia and ‘processing disorders’ as well as Asperger’s. Also, these children often aren’t recognised as gifted. ‘They may be in gifted programmes but it is more likely that they would be in a specialist remedial programme with their intellectual giftedness ignored,’ says the website Science 2.0. In short, society thinks of them many of them as disabled, which isn’t at all how Asperger’s is regarded.

But take a look at this fascinating article by Paul Cooijmans, an authority on genius and IQ who sounds a bit eccentric himself. It’s very well argued:

There is a notion that Asperger syndrome is related to high intelligence. A few things must be said about this:

Because of the convention to give this diagnosis only to who are not mentally handicapped, the average IQ of people with Asperger is artificially elevated compared to that of the rest of the population, which does include the mentally handicapped. But this means not that persons with Asperger are highly intelligent per se; just that their IQs are mostly over 70.

Asperger is thought to be related to genius, and this makes people think of high intelligence. However, the relation with genius – which is real according to me – does not lie in the supposed high intelligence of those with Asperger, but in their conscientiousness and associative horizon, both of which are important components of genius next to intelligence.

Actually, within the group of individuals with Asperger, those with high intelligence are a minority (just as they are in the general population), and in the group of highly intelligent persons, those with Asperger are a minority (just as they are in the general population).

So what’s the association with genius? Cooijmans describes genius as ‘the high end of the dimension of creativity’ – you’ll have to read his article to discover how he unpacks that idea, but he’s adamant that it can’t be identified by IQ tests. Moreover, he argues that all geniuses have Asperger’s. To further complicate matters, he thinks very intelligent people with the syndrome can be pulled in the direction of genius (i.e., extreme creativity) and that there’s an association between creative people who aren’t geniuses and Asperger’s.

The point that struck me was Cooijman’s insistence that Asperger syndrome is properly disabling – something the public doesn’t understand. It can be as serious as autism, though he rejects the idea that the two disorders are related. Since the diagnosis became fashionable in the 1990s, Asperger’s sufferers have been portrayed as eccentrics whose quirks are mildly pathological. But if they’re real Aspergoids (a technical term straight out of Doctor Who) then the symptoms can be unpleasant for everyone. Not washing, for example. Michelangelo – one of the few historical geniuses on whom the cap fits – was quite disgustingly unhygienic. (Warning: only click on that last link if you’ve got a strong stomach.)

What conclusion can we draw? Perhaps that ‘gifted’ is not a very useful word in this context. Extraordinary people are visited by the bad fairy as well as the good one. Furthermore, that IQ tests – valid in themselves and often unfairly rubbished for politically correct reasons – are two-dimensional. That irritating term ’emotional intelligence’ can’t be dismissed entirely, as you could argue that it’s a good shorthand definition of what Asperger’s sufferers are missing.

No wonder psychologists aren’t happy with the notion of a single spectrum of intelligence. Indeed, thinking about any spectrums can lead us down the wrong path, since research appears to demonstrate that ‘gifts’ – linguistic, musical, mathematical, artistic – can form a loop with mental disability. And, as the number of intellectually remarkable children trapped in remedial units shows all too clearly, we don’t know what to do about it.