Understanding the Difference Between Autism and Intellectual Disability

It is often the case that the broad public, some elements of Autism community itself, and even some diagnosticians, have a falsely held, stereotypical view that Autism equates, to at least some degree, to intellectual disability. This is a particularly strongly held belief towards Autistic children / adults who communicate non-verbally. Often correlating with this false belief, is the equally damaging belief that the child / adult has limited ability to learn and  will continue to have limited abilities across their life-span.

Clarifying between Autism and Intellectual Disability and / or their co-presence has important health, social, and cultural implications – greater and more widespread differentiation helps reduce stereotypes and stigmas and allows more focus on the specific support needs of an individual.

To better understand differentiation between Autism and Intellectual Disability, there are two terms that need to be understood:
1. Intellectual Ability  – which describes an individuals ability to learn, reason, problem solve, plan, think abstractly and apply / transfer learnings.
2. Adaptive Ability  – which describes the skills needed to live in an independent manner including communication, social skills and self-help skills.

‘Intelligence’ – the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills – is generally static / remains the same throughout a persons life-span; whereas ‘Developmental’ is the development trajectory of a child / adults development, and is not static throughout a person’s life-span.

Core differences between Autism and Intellectual Disability include:

• A person with Intellectual Disability (often defined as a formally assessed intelligence quota of 70 or less) has challenges with both Intellectual functioning and adaptive functioning; however social cogitation in Intellectual Disability is generally significantly less compromised than in Autistic individuals.
• Skill development in Intellectual Disability is usually slow but is at a relatively even pace across all spheres.
• A person on the Autism Spectrum has a different, uneven skill development trajectory in adaptive development – they may progress quickly and easily in some areas, and likely somewhat differently / unevenly in communication, social / emotional development, and language development.
• Inability to speak, does not mean inability to think, comprehend or learn – verbal ability, or inability, in itself, is not an indicator of Intellectual ability. Highly verbal individuals can have average intelligence or a co-existing Intellectual Disability; equally,  a non-verbal individual may be assessed as having very high intellectual ability.
• A diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder, Level 3 (previously known as Autistic Disorder / Classic Autism) does not, diagnostically, equate to the child having also been diagnosed with Intellectual Disability and / or having lower intelligence than their same age peers.
• Intelligence assessments generally assume competence in both language / communication, and ability to socially engage with the assessor – two core areas that Autistic children have different developmental trajectory (delay) in.  For this reason, it is not uncommon for outcomes of intelligence testing of Autistic children – especially younger or pre-verbal children and / or children who communicate non-verbally – to result in ‘false positives’ (assessment outcomes determining a child as having intellectual disability, when they do not) – with those children later going on to achieve average, or above average results in future intelligence assessments.

A child who is both on the Autism Spectrum and has co-concurring intellectual disability, will likely present differently, learn differently and require different (and likely higher level) individual supports than an Autistic child who does not have co-occurring intellectual disability.

Very high level, complex needs, in this context, may not be consequent of Autism of itself, but rather consequent of the child having intellectual disability and / or the combined challenges of both Intellectual disability and Autism.
Identifying a co-concurring Intellectual Disability in an Autistic child is important to best support the individual learning needs and development of independence skills of that child. An Intellectual Disabled Autistic child will, for example, benefit from more repetition, including pre-teaching and re-teaching, particularly in intellectual functioning areas, compared to other Autistic children their age.

Importantly, presuming competence – that is assuming a person has capacity to think, understand and learn – is the only respectful path when interacting with both Autistic and / or Intellectually Disabled individuals.  With the right supports, all individuals are capable of growing, learning and developing; and, all individuals, irrelevant of intellectual challenges, have their own personalities and preferences which should also be respected.


In a Nutshell …

1. Autism is not an Intellectual Disability. Intellectual ability (or deficits in Intellectual ability) is not part of the diagnostic criteria of Autism, and infact, never has been.
2. Autism does assume developmental delays in ‘Adaptive ability’, which often presents as a different, and generally uneven, developmental trajectory in social / emotional development, communication, language and self-help skills. Development is not static.
3. Intellectual Disability is deficits in an individual ability to intellectually learn, acquire and apply skills, but does not equate to inability to learn.


Absence of differentiating strengths and challenges of Autistic neurology, from the strengths and challenges of an Autistic person’s innate personality is another area that often leads to confusion about Autism. Click here to read about the difference between Autism and Personality.

What’s the Difference between Autism and Personality?

Perhaps one of the greatest challenges currently confronting the Autism community is the diversity of  Autism itself and, the associated challenges this presents Autistic adults, parents, professionals, schools and service providers in having a shared understanding of Autism and its diagnosis, and a cohesive approach to interventions, research, inclusiveness and the myriad of other Autism matters that influence the day to day lives of those on the spectrum.

The diversity of Autism is often further complicated, for many, by:

• Different (and often inaccurate) perceptions of what Autism is, and what it is not.
•  ‘Lumping’ the challenges of co-concurring conditions under the Autism umbrella and / or confusing co-concurring conditions an Autistic individual may have, with Autism.
• Absence of differentiating strengths and challenges of Autistic neurology from the strengths and challenges of an Autistic person’s innate personality.


Autism – the Brain’s ‘Operating System’

Autism is a life-long neurodevelopmental disability resulting from different brain development – primarily in the areas of communication, language development, emotional / social development; and, how a person inputs, interprets and processes information and stimuli from their environment and the world around them.

• Autism is not an illness or a disease.
• Autism is a spectrum condition – meaning how the communication, language, social, emotional and processing differences ‘play out’ in an individuals day to day life,  is different in each individual; along with the subsequent level of support an individual may need to interact in, and navigate, the world.
• Autism is not ‘traits of behaviour’. Autism is not behaviour at all – behaviour and individual traits are the ‘observable’ responses to not only how an individual’s Autistic neurology interprets and processes stimuli and information,  but also consequent of the Autistic persons individual personality, environment, cognitive ability and self awareness, and coping skills.
• Autism is not an intellectual disability. Intelligence forms no part of the diagnostic criteria of Autism.
• Autistic neurology is not limited to brain differences in a specific location on the brain, but evidenced as differences in multiple, spatially distributed neuron systems (across the whole brain).
• While many of the Spectrum also experience anxiety, Autism is not anxiety, depression or any other mental health condition.
• Autism is not hyperactivity, inattention, aggression or violence.
• Autism is complex.
• Autism is not caused by parenting, environment or personality, but just as is the case for all children, an Autistic child’s development and outcomes can be meaningfully, and significantly, influenced by these factors.
• Autism is permanent; autistic children become Autistic adults.


Personality – the Brain’s ‘Coordinator’

If Autism is the brain’s ‘operating system’, personality is the brain’s ‘coordinator’. Our personality is what propels us on life’s path. It represents our character, our temperament, disposition and our attitude (beliefs and values) unique to us. It is the distinctive pattern of psychological function that underpins our coping mechanisms and predicts our behaviour.

It is not uncommon that:

  1. Autistic children are responded to in a way that acknowledges their Autistic neurology, but disregards their individual personality and related personal preferences.
  2. Personal characteristics are confused as being ‘part of’ the child’s Autism, particularly when those personality characteristics are perceived as ‘negative’.

While there can be overlap between Autism and personality, and Autism and personality disorders, the two are distinctly different. Autistic neurology can influences our experiences, which can impact on our personality – but Autism does not determine or define personality.

Personality is both genetically influenced and consequent to life experiences, particularly in early childhood, which in turn mould’s our attitudes and our personal beliefs and values. Elements of our personality can and do change as we mature, and some elements of our personality is a part of our neurology that can be influenced (changed) if we choose to do so.

Personality is the difference between one Autistic child being innately adventurous, extraverted and persistent, and another Autistic child being introverted, novelty seeking and reward dependant. It is the key factor that underpins an Autistic child being ‘socially orientated’ and an Autistic child preferring isolation. It is the driving force between weather the child innately responds aggressively when dissatisfied, or if a child  innately responds introspectively when dissatisfied. Elements of personality change over a persons life span.

Autistic neurology – that is, how our brain is hard-wired to process stimuli, cannot be changed or altered. Autistic individuals can, and do, learn coping mechanisms to better navigate both their brain’s operating system and the world around them, but their underlying wiring remains Autistic throughout their life span.



In a Nutshell …

  1. Autism is the brains ‘operating system’. It’s how the brain inputs, interprets and  processes information and stimuli significantly differently from non-Autistic individuals – particularly in the areas of language, communication, social and emotional development and thinking patterns.
  2. Personality is the brain’s ‘coordinator’. It is the distinctive character,  temperament, disposition and attitude unique to us as an individual. It largely predicts our behaviour and influences our coping mechanisms.






My Challenge to you: Do no harm.

When a young Autistic girl’s precious ‘Shopkins collection’ was stolen, so much more was taken from her then cute, tiny toys. Here, her mum Angela, writes an open letter – directed to the persons responsible, and to any others who feel a sense of entitlement to another’s property.

Hi there.
I’m told you have long brown hair, a slim build, in your late teens and that your co-offending friend is of similar age – 17 or perhaps 18 years old. You’re on the wrong side of adulthood, too carefree to yet understand the complex world of a mumma bear, flying solo, and too skilled in vocal ability to grasp the often silent world of a young Autistic girl.

I wonder if you noticed – when you swiftly swiped my girls 232 tiny ‘Shopkins’, her ten ‘Shopkins’ dolls and her six Shopkins ‘Cutie Cars’, from our patio table – the meticulous way most had been lined up by colour and function? I’ve wondered if you gave any thought to as to ‘why’ the ‘Petkins’ car, ‘Gemma Stone’ doll and little ‘Puppy House’ were purposefully set to one side? Or, if you gave any consideration as to why ‘Toastie Bread’ and ‘Apple Blossom’ were front and centre to the rest?

You see, my nine year old girl – the one whose precious collection you stole – is Autistic, and her unique neurology delights in sorting, lining up, role-playing with, and using her beloved Shopkins to support communication, every single day, in a way that serves an intrinsic and meaningful purpose.

I’ve wondered too, would it have made a difference if you had known that what where simply ‘cute’ moulded pieces of plastic to you; to my girl are purposeful objects that help her to process daily events, her needs and her wants? Would you have chosen leaving, rather than taking, if you had realised that what you saw as sparkling dashes of glitter on colourful plastic shapes; to my girl are familiar patterns of differences that make her world feel safe and secure – each speck of glitter on each individual piece counted for, every tiny mark committed to memory, each piece a symbol of daily routine?

There was infact nothing random in how those tiny Shopkins were positioned on the table – their placement communicated the story of how my girl and I were going to be taking her puppy to the vet that afternoon, how I, represented by ‘Gemma Stone’ doll, was going to drive us there … and that my girl had requested toast and an apple for breakfast.

Do you understand now? You didn’t steal a collection of tiny toys, or moulded bits of plastic, or hundreds of dollars of individually chosen Shopkins collected over four years – you stole a child’s unique way of communicating and interacting in the world. You stole her individual creativity in how she plays. And you stole her sense of familiarity and safety.

She’s a gorgeous girl, my little one. A girl who does her very best – every single day – to understand and contribute to what is often a confusing world to her. A girl with a generous heart and a kind spirit who delights in abandoning random letters of kindness, sprinkled with glitter, in unsuspecting places – in the hope that they bring a smile to another child’s face that day. A young girl, who by neurology is fearful of unfamiliars, now has cause to cement that negativity in her minds eye.

As for the scooter you also took as part of your ‘find’, perhaps more disturbing than you taking it, was how calmly you responded to my elderly neighbour, when he called out to you over the fence. “It’s all good, I’m a friend, just picking up the scooter to fix for them”, you claimed. Your relaxed and carefree manner, your choice of words, tells me it’s unlikely that taking from others is foreign to you.

Your still young. You have much yet to experience and understand in life. You’re not too young however, to know right from wrong. You’re not too young to understand the negative and damaging impact your actions can have on another. You have the power to choose better in future, to choose giving, instead of taking, or at the very least, to choose to ‘do no harm’ in future.

My challenge to you, is for my girl to be the last child, the last person, you steal from.

‘Shopkins for Cadence’ Appeal
A detailed list of Cadence’s stolen Shopkins can be found here. If you would like to contribute to replacing Cadence’s stolen Shopkins, please consider donating no longer used / unwanted Shopkins (and ‘Petkins’ Shopkins) to: ‘Shopkins for Cadence’, PO Box 889, Morayfield, 4506, QLD, Australia.


Cadence’s Stolen shopkins

A huge thank you to everyone who has sent Cadence replacement Shopkins!

No further Shopkins are needed at this time. 

Edited / updated list as at 14 December 2017













Sign Out Loud – Autism & Sign Language

Nine year old Cadence singing “Shine Together – It’s okay to be a little different”, in sign language.

As a society, we so highly value speech ability that in its absence we often fail to recognise other equally valid forms of communication, including Makaton and sign language – this despite the reality that among the speaking community, only 7% of any message is conveyed through verbal words – 38% is through vocal elements such as tone, pitch, gasps, and a whopping 55% through non-verbal elements such as facial expressions, gestures and posture – and yet, we cling to the idea that speech ability has almost equivalent importance as our life’s  blood.

Such is the misguided strength society places on the value of speech ability that children, and adults, who communicate non-verbally are, more often then not, perceived “less than”, and at worst (and more commonly), assumed incapable, unintelligent and incompetent.

We look forward to the day when the many valid, alternative ways to communicate – technology systems, sign language, behaviour, writing, art, music, eholia speech – are seen as equal value and importance to typical speech ability.

We look forward to when we, as individuals – and as a community – recognise that what we perceive as another’s communication ‘inabilities’;  is infact a measure of our own inability to communicate in a method different to our own, so that genuine shared engagement, mutual respect and meaningful communication, is truly possible.

Until then, please join Cadence in singing, and signing, out loud.

When ‘Fun’ is Scary

IMG_1534What might be enjoyable and fun for many children, can be a very frightening and distressing experience for other children.

‘Book Week’ celebrations and other dress-up days can cause considerable confusion and distress to Autistic children – whose neurological processing relies, to a large degree, on ‘familiarity’ and ‘known’ knowledge (past experiences) to navigate the world.

Sadly, it is not uncommon for many parents of Autistic children to keep their child home on ‘dress up’ days, resulting in the child missing out on that days lessons / learning.

On her part, while Cadence very much enjoys dressing up; when others are in costumes, they can become ‘unfamiliar’ to her – visually a person she no longer ‘knows’. This is especially true where costume involves face masks and / or wigs – as was the case at her schools ‘Book Week’ celebrations this week.

This year her school’s theme was ‘super hero’s’, resulting in many teaching staff and students wearing face masks and / or full face paint. Others wore full animal masks and / or an assortment of different coloured wigs.

With many in masks / covered faces, Cadence found the digression from who and what she knew, too extreme, making transition to school difficult and frightening for her: “I thought it would be fun. But people looked strange and creepy, nothing was familiar”.

‘Dressing up’ is a ‘right of passage’ and much loved activity of childhood’ and so it should be for all children.

In support of inclusive approaches recognising the differing abilities, needs and diversity of their school population, many schools have asked themselves the question, “is the wearing of face coverings a necessity for children to delight in dressing up? Does the wearing of face coverings result in some children being excluded and / or not engaging in their learning”? And, have subsequently elected to adopt a policy of no face masks / face coverings on dress-up days. We look forward to more schools giving consideration to inclusive policies.

Dress-up Day (by Cadence)
“No-one was normal, only creepy and scary.
Masked faces, wolfs, horses, bears, strange things,
Closing in on me. Surrounded. Trapped.
By bodies with no faces.
The faceless moved so quickly.
Running. Too fast for me.
They laughed. Like it was fun?
Like nothing was different – when everything was wrong.
In a voice I know, from a body I don’t,
It makes no sense that they say “Come with me”.
My feet can’t move. They are stuck. Frozen. Glued.
Everything I know has disappeared.
Screams in my head that they can’t hear.
“Don’t touch me. Please leave me alone”.
I don’t know who or what you are –
When you are not you.
I don’t understand how they think
Scary is fun”.

Why I Belong in Mainstream School

“Parliament is teaching kids that don’t have a disability that they shouldn’t be with kids that do have a disability. I think that’s mean. … my school rules are to be respectful, to be safe and to be a learner. I think parliament should have the same rules. Saying to get rid of kids with Autism is not respectful. When parliament says kids like me should be gotten rid of, I don’t feel safe … a leaders job should be to find ways to make things work, not to get rid of things”.

This week, Australia’s One Nation Senator Pauline Hanson said in parliament that children with disabilities, particularly those with Autism, should be separated out of mainstream classrooms. Cadence listened to the Senators comments on the news. This is nhot a ‘political’ response; it is an Autistic child’s response to what they interpreted from what was said.


Nine year old Cadence, who is Autistic, was alerted to these comments during a television news break. Cadence, who delights in writing, twirling, patterns, counting and painting, often shares short writings on her experiences as an Autistic child. Her first public piece, ‘Autism is why I am different’,  was published by Kidspot magazine in August 2015, when Cadence was 7 years old, which combined with her prose “Autism Doesn’t mean I’m bad”, was made into a Spanish short film, ‘Acceptance’ (released August 2016).

Read Cadence’s short prose on how words harm Autistic children here.

You can view Senator Hanson’s speech here.

You can visit Cadence’s Facebook page here.

Cadence typing her letter to Parliament and Senator Hanson.