Intelligence is a tricky concept. In everyday language, we use it simply— to mean the level of knowledge that a person is able to operate in. If someone is smart, they know a lot and we say they have high intelligence. If someone is special needs and is dependent on others for their self-care, we say they have delays/a disorder/a syndrome, and low intelligence.
But intelligence is actually a tricky concept when we get beyond its simple meaning. it is tricky because human beings, as we grow, develop among multiple dimensions: cognitive, emotional, social/moral. Plus, there are different aspects of these dimenstions: analyzing, synthesizing, concluding, inferring, evaluating. We have what you might call “an intelligence package.” We start out as infants, immature and undeveloped in every part of the package, and then grow into an adult as the biological and rational capacities of our person unfold. Sometimes this unfolding is unimpeded and simply needs encouragement, and other times this unfolding is blocked and needs creative therapy in order to get around that blockage and get us back on track. To the extent that one or more of these dimensions are blocked/furthered, and one or more of the aspects are hindered/advanced, is the extent that we fulfill our developmental potential and become “intelligent.”
Intelligence is further complicated because it is an internal capacity. While some theorists have expanded the definition of “intelligence” to refer to any area we happen to be gifted in (i.e. including physical or motor giftings), intelligence to any real person means the capacity of the mind. The mind, which is supported by the brain, generally refers to the processing style and ability to rationalize about various informational, emotional, and moral data. But because this is all done “behind the scenes,” or in the black box of a person’s head, we can’t see it. We can’t measure it. We can’t truly get at what the person is doing, or how they are doing it, when they think. This inability to get inside the black box has baffled psychologists and neuroscientists for millennia. And it will continue to do so, probably because out of respect God has not created humanity with minds that can be tapped. We can peer into the mind, and locate, quantify, describe, and influence. But we can’t get into it or control it in any real sense. We rely on report. We receive the feedback. But the black box remains.
This internal capacity matters because as it concerns special needs children, a lot can be going on “behind the scenes.” When we try to assess their intelligence, we can be missing much of the picture. A classically autistic child, for example, may play the piano fabulously. But he or she may not be able to speak meaningfully or answer simple questions. Is that child intelligent? Is a lot going on in their head that they cannot describe? Well, possibly. But we don’t know because they can’t communicate with us. Therefore he or she will fail the I.Q. test (or may not even be testable), and we have no idea how intelligent they are. We need other ways to find out.
The same applies for lots of other special needs scenarios. Because intelligence is internal, special needs children often fall into the problem where they are able to receive more than they are able to express. For social, mental, or linguistic reasons, they may not be able to communicate much about what they are “thinking” or learning. Nor might they be able to mold what they are thinking or learning into more accurate forms because they can’t bridge the gap between what we are telling them and what they already know. But, intelligent they may still be. They still may be receiving lots of information through formats we aren’t using (gestural, motor, visual, etc.) and formulating correct (or semi-correct) ideas in their heads which they can manipulate on their own.
As parents, we need to get at the truth of the situation in order to assess our child’s intelligence, if that is important to us. If we fall for the definition of intelligence as simply “knowledge,” we will be selling our children short. How many of us know a genius who can’t use a map? Or have heard of a “Rainman” who can’t use money but can calculate huge sums of numbers? Intelligence is not just knowledge, and we don’t want to treat our children (gifted, average, or special needs) as if it is. We want to work the whole intelligence package. We want them to be functional adults cognitively, emotionally, socially/morally. We want to avoid developmental stall in any one of these areas, and promote growth in all of them. If they have special needs, we need to figure out whether they are indeed receiving information and using it inside their own heads (but not able to express or communicate it), or if they truly have low intelligence and are not doing very much connecting, synthesizing, reasoning, inferring, reflecting, or evaluating.
It is true that kids can have giftings in certain areas. The person who says “my kid is emotionally intelligent” probably means (assuming that this isn’t just an excuse because the child isn’t doing well in school but the parent still believes the child is smart and has to defend it some other way) that the child has an above average capacity to receive and interpret emotional data: faces, gestures, tone of voice, etc. They may be especially adept at communicating what people need to hear or doing what someone needs them to do even though the person hasn’t explicitly told them so. But you don’t want to fall into the trap of allowing your child to express his gifts without exercising his weaknesses. In short, don’t allow the child to become unbalanced just because he is naturally good at receiving, processing, concluding, and evaluating one type of signal. Try to expand those aspects of intelligence to other arenas, including rational and moral inputs. You know the expression “Renaissance Man” and how people like Leonardo da Vinci and Thomas Jefferson seemed to be able to do everything? Well that is because they tried to exercise the faculties of the mind across different types of inputs (including musical, artistic, mathematical, etc.). The same types of capacities like analyzing and deducing were needed in all areas, so they exercised those abilities and then transferred them to other areas.
I guess what I am saying is, try to have a dynamic view of intelligence rather than a static one. Try to see it in all its forms without boxing in your child to their strengths or weaknesses. Don’t see it as “knowledge” but as the internal life of the mind. Exercise the powers of the mind in one area to see results in other areas. Look for signs that the child is using different powers of the mind, even if they can’t communicate that they are. Don’t trust the I.Q. test, alone, to reveal your child’s ability to think. Observe their eyes and behaviors to see if their mental life is active and principled, or reflexive and chaotic. And try to see intelligence as changeable, as a reflection of the child’s powers at any one time, rather than a prognostication of what they are able to accomplish. Especially for special needs children, always give them the benefit of the doubt… and they usually will surprise you.