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What is smart?

Do we judge intelligence like we judge a pretty face?

"He's such a bright little boy!" My mother and her friends said things like that all the time, as they pointed to me when they thought I wasn't paying attention.

Now that I'm grown, I can let them in on a secret: There was never a time when I didn't pay attention to grownups as a kid. I watched them really close, all the time. I may not have understood everything I heard, but I surely took it all in.

But what did it mean? I got a new bike, and my mother said, "What a pretty red bicycle!" Everyone who saw it said the same thing. It was a nice, red bike. The attributes didn't change. It was always a bike, and always red. No one ever called it blue or green, because colors were absolute. Something was either red or green; it didn't change at your whim or mine.

Unfortunately, phrases like, "Bright little boy," didn't work that way. I went to school as a "bright boy" only to have bigger kids say, "You're a retard!" Grownups got in their kicks with lines like, "How can you act so stupid?"

I may not have known much in elementary school, but I knew bright, retarded, and stupid did not go together.

Something was wrong. I began watching those grownups who said I was so smart a little closer. I noticed something pretty quick: When grownups talked about kids, they were always calling them clever and smart, and the other moms always agreed. No one ever said, "John Elder is really smart, but Freddie is dumb as a rock!"

The grownups said, "John Elder is smart," and then Freddie crawled into the cage, and they also said, "Freddie is so clever and smart!" To moms, we were all cute and smart and clever. Yet I'd go to school, and lots of kids said Freddie was dumb. None of them said he was smart.

So who was right? You heard moms call kids smart, and they never called kids dumb. Yet I knew you couldn't have smart kids without having less-smart ones too. If we were all smart, we'd be the same, and there would be no such thing as smart or not.

So I learned to discount what the moms said. I did the same for most of the kids who called me a retard, because I realized they called everyone they didn't like a retard. Also, after close observation I began to doubt the mental prowess of the name callers. If they were subnormal, how could they possibly diagnose me?

After a lot of watching and thinking, I finally figured out what was happening. People said I was smart because they thought I sounded smart. Sound was the giveaway. My choice of words announced my intelligence, or so they thought.

It took a long time for me to figure that out because it didn't work that way for me; I had to deduce what was going on from observation. You see, I could never really tell who was smarter even when I knew someone pretty well. Sure, I knew who had better language skills. Me. But so what?

I have always spoken really precisely and clearly, and that gives listeners the impression that I am really smart. But that didn't make me smarter. Butch Fornier talked rough, but he was an artist with carburetors in auto shop. I could talk circles around Butch, but when it came to practical skill, he had me whupped. So I knew how deceptive fancy words could be.

Pretty is something you see. Stinky is something you smell. Smart is something you hear. That's how it works for most people. What a disappointment! I always thought "smart" was an absolute, and maybe it is on an IQ test. But in the popular perception, smart is just as much in the eye of the beholder as beauty and body odor.

People who listened to me had no way to know if I was really smart or not. They didn't say, "Quick now! Multiply 4,722 by 381. What's the answer?" They never said, "So you think you're smart . . . who's the King of Mongolia?" Those kinds of questions might have given people some real insight into my intelligence. But they never asked. They just listened to me talk, and jumped to a conclusion.

They were making a big mistake, as it turned out.

I did have really good speaking skills. That part of my brain is "smart." But there's more to being smart than the ability to talk a good game. There's also math smarts, history smarts, and smarts for everything else they teach in school. And finally, one big smarts is social smarts. That's the ability to figure out other people, and what they really mean when they say and do things. Unfortunately, I am pretty dumb in that area.

When I was twelve, I had the language skill of a college professor and the social skill of a toddler. That was a formula for disaster, and it totally explains all those people who cried out, "How can you be so smart and do such dumb things?"

Today I see how exceptional language skill can combine with poor social skill to create a terrible invisible handicap. A person whose social skills and language are poor is cut some slack, because he sounds like he needs some help. A person like me is torn to pieces because I sound so good that I'm held to an exceptionally high standard; one I often fail to meet. Quite a few of my fellow Aspergians share this predicament.

And the worst part is . . . I often don't even know when I've made a gaffe, because that social blindness is central to the whole thing.

That's something to ponder the next time a "smart kid" does something "really dumb" in your presence.