Autism and the Flynn Effect

The Flynn Effect bears striking similarities with Asperger’s syndrome.

Posted Apr 07, 2010

In a previous post, I commented on the fact that the Flynn Effect (the rise in IQ seen in Western countries since testing began) has been highly uneven. And in the post before that, I also pointed out that, although items revealing large differences between the sexes are routinely omitted from IQ tests, major cognitive differences between the sexes nevertheless exist.

I also mentioned the fact that the Flynn Effect resembles what you find in high-functioning autism, such as Asperger’s syndrome (AS). Here, uneven scores on sub-tests of standard IQ measures are strikingly evident. Furthermore, in line with the so-called “extreme male-brain” theory of autism, AS cases tend to do better on the sub-tests which favor males, such as Raven’s matrices (below), and worse on those where females often do somewhat better, such as vocabulary, comprehension, and arithmetic. Indeed, if you take Ravens’ results as a measure of so-called “fluid” or general intelligence, AS subjects often score higher than normal controls: a kind of Asperger’s Flynn Effect.

Raven's Matrix: Which shape completes the pattern on the left?

Women averagely have better language skills than men. Language deficits or deviations, however, are symptomatic of autism in general, and are usually found—albeit often mitigated by the normal or even superior IQ of the subject—in AS. Comprehension demands understanding a text in context and in terms of everyday, common-place meanings, which is symptomatically deficient in autism, resulting in even high-functioning autistics scoring poorly on such tests. Finally, although often mathematically gifted, AS subjects can be poor at arithmetic, and instead excel at maths skills associated with male excellence. Indeed, you find autistic savants with stunning skills in recondite fields like prime-number recognition and factoring, who are nevertheless hopeless at simple arithmetic. Contrariwise, child street-vendors in Recife who could do wonderful on-the-spot arithmetic in the course of trading, performed badly when given pen-and-paper tests of the same skills. This argues that arithmetic is a mentalistic, social skill—clearly part of the street-credibility of vendors—rather than an analytic, scholastic, or mechanistic one, and the same is even more true of comprehension and vocabulary.

All this suggests that the Flynn Effect, with its “huge” gains in Ravens’ (Flynn’s word, not mine), is a parallel to what we often see in AS cases: above-average IQ, but with striking peaks in mechanistic intelligence, and average, or deficit, performance on measures of mentalistic intelligence. Indeed, this is effectively how Flynn himself explains the Flynn Effect. According to him, “Science has engendered a sea change” in modern thinking styles, and I need only add that science epitomizes what I would call mechanistic as opposed to mentalistic cognition to make the point that Flynn and I are effectively saying the same thing. The Flynn Effect is explained, not by some across-the-board rise in intelligence (with all the paradoxes that suggests and which I made the subject of previous posts) but by a re-balancing of normal intelligence in a much more mechanistic direction.

Indeed, the Flynn Effect has probably been even more striking than we think, because one of the most widely-replicated findings is that the lower a woman’s IQ, the more children she is likely to have. For example, a study published in 2000 found that the drop in average IQ in the total data-set for mothers of one-child versus five-child families was about 20% (and that birth order had no effect). By contrast, a recent study found that in Great Britain and the USA a full 50% of women in the highest-paid occupations (which correlate strongly with IQ) were childless. Yet, despite repeated and dire predictions from the start of testing more than a century ago about the consequences of all this for IQ in Western societies—not to mention the fact that, as I have pointed out in previous posts, mothers contribute most to a child’s intelligence—we now know that IQ has on the contrary risen!

In short, neither the high fecundity of low IQ women (whose mentalistic intelligence may have been much higher than their measured IQ), nor fashionable feminist, anti-patriarchal attitudes and legislation combined with co-education and common curriculums for both sexes have been able to stop Western countries evolving collective cognitive configurations comparable to those of “extreme male brain” high-functioning autistics! What on earth is going on?

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