It’s what you do with what you’ve got that matters

Does a low IQ score matter? That’s the issue that Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor David Joel Miller discusses in this guest post on changes in the way IQ is being viewed. As he concludes, it can be both good news and bad for people with intellectual disabilities.

By David Joel Miller

There has been a lot of misunderstanding about IQ Scores, what they mean and just how significant a low IQ score may be. Some of the things we thought we knew have been challenged recently.

One definition of an IQ score is “The number of marks you make correctly on a piece of paper divided by your age.” We expect younger people to get lower scores and older people to get higher scores. What this does not tell us is what those scores are really measuring and what difference does it make.

The conventional wisdom has been that people with low IQ scores are less mentally able.

This presumes that there are no biases in the test. Most test manufacturers or publishers work long and hard to eliminate biases. Still we know that culture matters. Most IQ tests rely heavily on words, so if you speak two or more languages but as a result know fewer words in each language you speak you might score lower.

The presumption in the past has been that the higher you score on the IQ test the smarter you were and the better you should do at life. For someone with a low IQ we assumed that learning things would be harder.

This does not explain how someone with a low IQ score might be very good at a skill like music or a sport while the person with a high IQ might fail at those same skills.

Clearly IQ is not the whole story.

The mean IQ score is set at 100. The way the mathematics work is that the majority of people get scores from 85 to 115. That range is considered normal. So mix children with IQ scores of 85 and 115 together in a class and the teacher might have difficulty telling which is which, without reference to their test scores.

But if you get a score of 84, now we say you have “Borderline intellectual function.” If the 30 point differences between “normal” don’t make much difference how does that one point difference between 84 and 85 make so much difference.

The truth is it doesn’t.

What matters is what people do with the intelligence they have. So just like the really heavy kid may be no good at football and the skinny little kid may be able to run really fast with the ball so too do differences appear in how people use the intellectual resources they have.

The trend in the DSM-5 to move towards dimensional diagnosis rather than categories has changed our thinking from classifying mental retardation based on IQ scores to looking at how that low IQ is affecting the person.

So if the person is having difficulty with adaptive functioning because of their intellectual disability they get diagnosed with an intellectual disability disorder. If they are doing a good job of functioning despite a low IQ score they just may not get a diagnosis.

I realize this will take a while for the popular culture to catch up. It is no longer your I. Q. score that matters but what you do with what you got.

This shift by therapists and the APA will also cause ripples in all that special education and those government programs that are still using IQ scores as a basis for services.

All in all I see good and bad in this. Good if it reduces stigma against people simply because of the score they got on one piece of paper and bad if as a result of new definitions some people who need help get screened out.

Only time will tell.

So till then stop saying people have mental retardation and look to see if they are having difficulty coping with their life because of an intellectual disability or are they just sad, anxious or upset about life events like the rest of us.

David Joel Miller is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor in Fresno, CA.