I was interviewed by Dan Peters for his Psychology Today blog

I decided to consolidate various blog posts here on Microscopes are Prudent, and I’d like to include a link to this blog post by Dr. Daniel Peters of Summit Center. Dr. Peters interviewed me on his From Worrier to Warrior blog in April for Autism Awareness Month about anxiety and autism.

A First-Person Perspective on Anxiety and Autism


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What is IQ?

Sandeep Gautam wrote in “Why IQ is a Myth”:“To me, to be frank a score of 162 or whatever on a test means nothing, and I hardly care if the test is Cattels , WISC or stanford-binet. When a lay person sees a score of 100 or 160 he assumes that a) intelligence can be fully measured and quantified and b) IQ is that measure.”

It is very true that IQ scores divorced from their context are pretty meaningless. It’s like saying, “Forty-two is The Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything” [Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy] Forty-two what? What was the question?

We can list a lot of things that an IQ score isn’t:

  • It isn’t The Answer to the Ultimate Question about a person.
  • It isn’t an immutable number carved on your brain.
  • It isn’t able to measure the full range of a person’s abilities.
  • It isn’t a measure of someone’s worth.
  • It isn’t a map of someone’s destiny.
  • It isn’t a limit (or an expectation!) placed on a person’s potential.

But instead of underestimating the “lay person”, perhaps we should attempt to explain what an IQ score is. It is information about how a person performed certain tasks, under certain conditions, on a particular day. A full-scale IQ score makes sense only when we understand it in its full context, including: the type of test, its standard deviation, its ceilings, its error ranges, the other composite scores, and the subtest scores. A good tester also makes behavioral observations about how the person approaches problems and emotional factors that may have affected the results. To interpret the subtest scores, we need to understand the specific cognitive abilities being drawn upon by those tasks. A full-scale score is only the broadest summary of someone’s performance ranked as a comparison to the scores of others in the same age group. It gives none of the details about strengths or weaknesses.A typical full-scale IQ score (such as given by the Wechsler tests), is called a standard score. This score corresponds to a percentile ranking of the sum of the scaled scores of selected individual subtests, which are themselves rankings of the raw scores for each task normed for each age group. It is essentially a measure of “unusualness”. The more unusual subtest scores someone has, the more that will be reflected in the sum, resulting in a more unusual full-scale score. The logic of this process can be confounded in situations where a person’s scores in one area are unusually low and unusually high in another, giving the appearance of an average sum. This is why we need to look at the other composite scores (for example, Verbal or Working Memory) and the subtest scores in order to interpret the full-scale score.

An unusually high score, like Neha Ramu’s, is possible only when all or nearly all of the subtest scores are unusually high. What does this tell us about a person? It means that in comparison to others her age, she excels in skills that are predictive of academic success, which is what most IQ tests have been designed to measure.In its various incarnations, IQ has been linked to certain personal characteristics and learning outcomes—I’m not going to summarize those volumes of research here. The important thing to remember when reading about such research is that statistical correlations can tell you only about the likelihood of a given outcome. They cannot be applied to individuals. We cannot know ahead of time whether a person is part of the majority who will experience a given outcome or the minority who will not. The fact that there is such a minority does not invalidate the research, just as the fact that IQ scores may be misunderstood by some does not mean they are useless or absurd.

No psychologist trained to administer IQ tests would claim that intelligence can be fully quantified by IQ. I completely agree that it is sloppy journalism to report Neha’s score as evidence that she is smarter than Albert Einstein, and equally sloppy to compare her score to an estimate (Einstein never took the test Neha took). But instead of dismissing IQ tests as nonsense, let’s set the record straight.

This post originally appeared on Undiscovered Gold.

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DSM 5: Diagnosis Should Describe, Not Pathologize

I’ve been thinking about Dan Peters’s post about pathologizing the human condition. I understand and share his concerns about the influence of health insurance requirements on how people are diagnosed and how they can get help, but I think that’s actually a separate problem from the question of “should we diagnose”. If people had freer access to health care in general, and mental health care in particular, there would be less pressure to diagnose for the sake of having access to a reimbursable treatment.

Let’s assume for the moment that insurance is not a factor; the question of whether to diagnose still remains and hinges on the meaning we make of diagnosis itself. Does a diagnosis mean there is pathology? Does it mean there is something wrong that must be fixed? Is it a judgment on a person’s worth? How we answer those questions depends on the social context, and the effect of a diagnosis on a person depends partly on how that diagnosis is seen by society.

Instead of worrying that the DSM 5 is pathologizing temper tantrums and grief, what if we examine what we mean by “disorder” in the first place? Is a developmental difference like Asperger’s really a disorder? Do we call it a disorder because these differences cause suffering? Is every mental condition that causes suffering a disorder? Dyslexia is a similar example. Both can cause suffering but can also confer unusual strengths.

Is everything different from the norm a disorder? In contrast, PTSD could reasonably be seen as an emotional injury. PTSD is a documented human response to trauma. It certainly causes suffering, but if many “normal” people who are exposed to trauma develop PTSD, how can PTSD be abnormal?  It would be more accurate to describe it as a normal response to an abnormal situation.  And consider anxiety: anxiety is a normal human emotion and necessary for our survival. It’s only a problem if the anxiety is excessive or somehow inappropriate to the situation. So anxiety itself is not a disorder, and we wouldn’t want to completely eliminate it.  Still, all four of these are considered “disorders” by the DSM. Perhaps the DSM is unnecessarily pathologizing much of what it describes.

On the other hand, I think that the proliferation of diagnoses in the DSM 5 is the result of increasing specificity in our descriptions of mental conditions. That is not necessarily a bad thing! Categorizing mental conditions and exploring their differences are important steps toward greater understanding of the mind and brain. If our society conceptualizes those mental conditions as pathology, I don’t think that’s necessarily driven by the DSM. The DSM is a product of our social concept of mental health and seems to be a response to people seeking relief from various symptoms. If anything, it lags behind changes in society’s views on mental health and illness. Our lack of knowledge about the causes of many mental conditions means that the DSM must consist of symptom-focused descriptions. I would be the first to agree that these are subjective and people sometimes mistake the symptoms for the cause, but description and diagnosis still serve important purposes.

The word “diagnosis” comes from Greek and means “to know apart”, in other words, “to differentiate between”. In its function of describing people, diagnosis does not inherently pathologize them. That’s a judgment we place on the description after the fact. The best clinicians use diagnosis as a means to describe and explain a client’s experience.

Diagnosis can validate people’s experiences, empower people to seek treatment or accommodations, honor and encourage their adaptive efforts, and foster connections with others who share their experience. If I could change one thing about the DSM 5, it would not be to erase any of the descriptions, it would be the word “disorder”. Difference is not disorder. Emotional pain is not disorder. These are aspects of being human. Let’s keep describing human experience in all its variety, keep trying to help those who are suffering, but work to change how our society views those who are different or in pain.

This post originally appeared on The Creativity Post.

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Gender bias in the Reading the Mind in the Eyes test

The Reading the Mind in the Eyes test (RME) was developed by Simon Baron-Cohen to test aspects of his extreme male brain theory of autism. Recently, it has become popular with researchers studying affective empathy and autism, and is now available online in various places, mostly as a diagnostic tool for adults on the autism spectrum.  It has been revised, and the current version contains 36 items, each with four possible responses in a multiple choice format. Unfortunately, even in the revised version, the test items are highly gender biased which could affect its accuracy even though it has decent test-retest reliability.  I have analyzed the content of the test items, and broken them down by gender in order to highlight this problem and bring it to the attention of psychology researchers.

Restricted range of female images

Here are examples of the range of male eyes depicted in the RME:


The images are cropped black and white stills of actors in movies.  These are not taken from real life, and are not representative of the population although the items are balanced in terms of number of male and female eyes (18 female and 18 male).  There is a much greater range of ages represented by the male faces as compared to the female faces.  This may be due to the restricted pool (movies) that the items were drawn from.  All the female eyes are model-like in their symmetry, and all are made up with eye makeup and have plucked eyebrows.  In other words, all the female eyes are conforming to a gender stereotype of feminine beauty as seen in movies.


Restricted range of female emotional expression

I made a list of all the response choices (77 different choices) and found that there were only 48 different choices presented to the test subject as possible responses for the female eyes while there were 54 different choices presented for the male eyes.  Thus the range of possible emotions for the female eyes was restricted as compared to the male eyes.

Similarly, among the correct responses, there were 18 different correct responses for the male eyes (a unique response for each item), and only 15 for the female eyes since three of the female items (“fantasizing”, “preoccupied”, and “interested”) were duplicated.  Again, a greater emotional range  was available to describe the male eyes.  There was apparently no effort made to ensure parity between the range and types of emotions expressed in the male and female items.

Sexualized content of female items

Among the correct responses for female eyes, we find: “desire”, “flirtatious”, “interested” (twice), and “playful”.  Similar emotions in the male eyes are described as “anticipating” and “friendly”.  The correct responses for the female eyes have a strong bias toward expressing sexual interest directed toward the viewer.  This perception is reinforced by the camera angles and lighting that were used in the movies from which the items were drawn.


Also among the correct responses for the female eyes are: “contemplative”, “fantasizing” (twice), “preoccupied” (twice), and “reflective”.  The eyes in those items are not expressing much emotion.  Similar items for male eyes were described as “pensive” and “thoughtful”.  All of these indicate inwardly directed attention.  Fantasizing is not really an emotional state; it is an activity during which one could experience a variety of emotional states. When someone’s attention is directed inward, less communication about their emotional state is directed outward making the actual emotional states depicted in these items ambiguous.


Answering these ambiguous items correctly is more about eliminating answers than making a distinction between “thoughtful” and “fantasizing”.  Also, ambiguous items may muddy the results since test subjects may be more likely to project their own emotional states or be more suggestible to response items. Six female items (out of 18) were ambiguous as compared to two (out of 18) for the male items, so fully 33% of the female items were ambiguous compared to 11% of the male items.  This cluster of similar items among the correct answers for the female eyes further restricts the range of emotions expressed.

Using the RME to look for gender differences in empathy could be very problematic.  One study concludes that men have more trouble reading the emotions of women than of other men based on their performance on the RME.  Given that there is a significantly higher percentage of ambiguous items among the female eyes, and the range of emotions expressed in the female items is limited, I’m not sure that is a valid conclusion.  If the RME is to be used for testing hypotheses about autism and gender or gender and affective empathy, it needs to be redesigned with careful attention to gender parity in both the range of different ages and facial types presented as well as the range and types of emotions represented.


Baron-Cohen S. The extreme male brain theory of autism. Trends in Cognitive Science. 2002; 6(6):248-254.

Baron-Cohen S, Wheelwright S, Hill J, Raste Y, Plumb I.  “Reading the Mind in the Eyes” test revised version: a study with normal adults, and adults with Asperger syndrome or high-functioning autism. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. 2001; 42: 241-251.

Best C, Minshew N, Strauss M. Gender discrimination of eyes and mouths by individuals with autism. Autism Research. 2010; 3(2): 88-93.

Fernández-Abascal E, Cabello R, Fernández-Berrocal P, Baron-Cohen S. Test-retest reliability of the ‘Reading the Mind in the Eyes’ test: a one-year follow-up study. Molecular Autism. 2013; 4:33.

Schiffer B, Pawliczek C, Müller B, Gizewski E, Walter H. Why Don’t Men Understand Women? Altered Neural Networks for Reading the Language of Male and Female Eyes. PLOS One. 8(4): e60278.

This post originally appeared in The Creativity Post.

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Alert to Gifted Advocates: We Need to Change This Meme!

I just saw it retweeted:

“If you’re 130 IQ you’re as different from the mean as if you were 70 IQ on the other side. #NAGC ”

This sounds reasonable, right? Except for one problem: IQ scores are not measures of amount of ability (or need).  They are only a relative ranking of scores, corresponding to percentiles.  A 30 point interval on one part of the IQ scale may mean a much greater difference in abilities than a 30 point interval on another part of the scale, even if we are talking about the same IQ test!

How the norming process works

To understand why, you need a little background on how modern IQ tests are scored.  When IQ tests are developed, the test items are first tried by a norming group.  This is a group of people who are supposed to be representative of the population in terms of their range of ages, abilities, genders, ethnicities, and other factors.  The test items are ranked according to difficulty, and raw scores are calculated for each subtest.  Within each age group, those raw scores form a distribution: most people score somewhere near average for that age group and fewer people score very high or very low.  This distribution is normed by fitting the scores to a normal distribution curve with an average of 10 and a standard deviation of 3.  Thus for each raw score, there is a correspondingscaled score ranging from 1 – 19 for that subtest.  This norming process spreads the raw scores out unevenly because the scaled score depends on how many other people scored below a given raw score.  In other words, a difference of 4 points in raw score could correspond to a greater difference in scaled scores in one part of the distribution than in another.  The scaled scores tell us only how unusual (how many standard deviations from average) someone’s performance is on each subtest.

Once the scaled scores are determined for each subtest, the total of the scaled scores for a certain group of the subtests is similarly fitted to a normal distribution.  This generates a table that the psychologist uses to look up the Full Scale IQ score, known as a standard score.  This is a score ranging from 1- 160 with an average of 100 and a standard deviation of 15.  Thus the FSIQ is a measurement of how unusual the sum of the scaled scores of the subtests is.  A major drawback to the FSIQ is that when one subtest score is unusually low and another is unusually high, these differences are masked in the sum.  Major tests like the WISC-IV take this into account by not allowing a valid FSIQ to be calculated when the subtest scores are too widely scattered.

Making sense of raw scores

Could we go back to the raw scores and compare abilities that way?  Even that is not a straightforward process.  For some subtests, like digit span, it might make sense to say that a person who can remember 6 digits has a memory that is as much better than someone who can remember 3 digits as it is worse than someone who can remember 9 digits.  But for other subtests, it’s not so easy to quantify differences in amount of difficulty between the test items.  Is the first block design puzzle as much easier compared to the second as the second is compared to the third?  This is not clear.  All we can say to compare people is that this person assembled three puzzles successfully while another person assembled only one, and that assembling three puzzles happens much more often in the population of that age group than assembling only one puzzle.

This meme is everywhere in the gifted universe:

“The child of 160 IQ (top 0.01%) is as different from the child of 130 IQ (top 2%) as that child is from the child of average ability.”

~Leta Hollingworth, Children Above 180 IQ (1942) [1]

“There is the numerical answer: a child of IQ 160 is as different from a moderately gifted child of 130, as that child is from an average child of 100. “ [2]

“Now move in the opposite direction from 100. An IQ score up to one standard deviation above 100 is considered normal, or average. Move up one standard deviation is mildly gifted. That means that a child with a score of 130 is as different from a child with an IQ of 100 as is the child with an IQ of 70, a score which definitely qualifies a child for special services. Move up one more standard deviation and we move into the range of moderately gifted (130-144). The same range on the other side of 100 is the mildly retarded range.” [3]

“Let’s pretend that you take an average child with an IQ of 100. Take this child and put them into a classroom where everyone else’s IQ is 70 and below. In other words you are taking an average child and putting him or her into a school environment where all the classmates are mentally retarded. Not only are these classmates mentally retarded but the curriculum is also geared for the mentally retarded children. “ [4]

“What’s the difference? Gifted children tend to think differently and learn more quickly than their peers. Compare a gifted child (IQ = 130) to an average child (IQ=100) you will see the difference: the gifted child learns quicker, thinks deeper, and draws conclusions more easily. Compare that gifted child (IQ=130) to the highly gifted child (IQ=160). Again, you will see the difference, in many of the same ways. Now compare the highly gifted child to the normal child, and you face a chasm that by the end of elementary school may place these two children as much as 5 years apart in mental age.

“There’s another way to look at it. The difference between the exceptionally gifted and the average child is the same as the difference between the average child and the mentally handicapped child of IQ 40. That’s a big difference!” [5]

Why does this matter?

  • As advocates we should strive to be accurate. Our credibility is at stake!
  • As advocates we should strive to educate—not spread misinformation just because it is a handy analogy to make a point.
  • Think about how our advocacy is perceived by others: When we make a comparison that implies average people are mentally impaired compared to gifted people, we alienate most of our listeners.

I understand that the goal is to build awareness of the very real needs of gifted children. So instead let’s use the real meaning of IQ scores: a high (or low) score is unusual. Unusual kids are likely to need unusual accommodations.

Please, make a small change, gifted advocates! Be accurate, educate, and build awareness without alienating others. Let’s start using a new meme:


Unusual kids

are likely to need

unusual accommodations.

In order to help advocates communicate how unusual gifted scores are in the population, I created this graphic.

The orange squares correspond to the distribution of scores 130 and above in the population, and the purple square is for 145 and above.  The green and yellow squares represent scores below 130.  I used two colors to help people visualize groups of 32 students in  “classrooms”.  I chose 130 because it is two standard deviations above average, and is often used as a cutoff for gifted programs.  This chart illustrates the rarity of these scores.  On average, a teacher who has 32 students per year could expect to see a highly gifted student with an IQ of 145 or above once in a 32 year career.  In practice, this may happen more or less often because the population is not uniform from one school to the next and because different groups of students may score above 145 on different IQ tests, increasing the number of opportunities for scoring high.  Still, I believe the chart can help illustrate that as a student’s IQ score increases, the likelihood that the school’s regular curriculum will be a good fit decreases.

[1] http://www.pegy.org.uk/page2.html

[2] http://www.hoagiesgifted.org/highly_profoundly.htm

[3] http://giftedkids.about.com/od/gifted101/qt/IQ_scores.htm

[4] http://www.alifeofthemind.com/2011/02/13/mensa-iq-the-30-point-gap-and-the-outsiders/

[5] http://vcbconsulting.com/gtworld/gttest.htm

Post updated: 10/13/2013 to include background information on the scoring of IQ tests and the rarity chart illustrating the IQ score distribution for gifted students.

This post originally appeared on The Creativity Post.

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Prodigy, pathology, and a review of The Einstein Syndrome

Jacob Barnett


Jacob Barnett of recent 60 Minutes fame, could have been a poster child for Thomas Sowell’s Einstein Syndrome. Although he is a math prodigy, Jacob did not talk until age two, and exhibits many of the characteristics Sowell identifies as part of the Einstein Syndrome:

  • Outstanding and precocious analytical abilities and/or musical abilities
  • Outstanding memories
  • Strong wills
  • Highly selective interests, leading to unusual achievements in some areas and disinterest and ineptness in others
  • Delayed toilet training
  • Precocious ability to read and/or use numbers and/or use computers
  • Close relatives in occupations requiring outstanding analytical and/or musical abilities
  • Unusual concentration and absorption in what they are doing
  • Delayed speech development

In his book, The Einstein Syndrome: Bright Children Who Talk Late, Sowell paints a picture that any parent of a child diagnosed with speech delay, autism, or Asperger’s would want to embrace: their child’s late speech does not indicate a problem, but may be a sign of giftedness. As evidence for his theory, he points to talented thinkers and performers, such as famed pianist Arthur Rubinstein, India’s self-taught mathematical genius Ramanujan, and Nobel Prize winning physicist Albert Einstein as examples of gifted late-talkers.



Sowell’s primary motivation is to stop pathologizing these late-talking children who are also gifted in specific domains. He rightly raises concerns that characteristics of giftedness such as early reading, selective interests and unusual concentration can be mistaken for the symptoms of autism spectrum disorders or Asperger’s syndrome, especially by school psychologists and therapists who rely on checklists for such diagnoses. Early reading can be mistaken for hyperlexia, the precocious ability to read—but without comprehension. And selective interests can be misinterpreted as obsessive or pathological, even though many gifted children have unusual interests and uncommon depth of knowledge on specific topics. Sowell believes children with Einstein Syndrome are also strong-willed, a trait found in many gifted children, and are likely to be misdiagnosed because of their refusal to cooperate within the parameters of testing. These are all important factors for parents to consider, however a diagnosis of autism or Asperger’s syndrome may no longer be viewed as being stigmatizing as Sowell implies. In fact, Jacob Barnett turns out to be an example of the increased awareness and public acceptance of autism spectrum disorders—Jacob was diagnosed with autism which he feels is the source of many of his outstanding abilities.

Sowell cautions against automatically assuming that late-talkers need speech therapy. He argues that it is difficult to tell whether the therapy is effective, or whether time and maturity would bring the same result. He makes a distinction between late-talkers who have the ability to comprehend language, such as children with the Einstein Syndrome, and those who do not, in order to identify children who need therapeutic intervention. The book includes anecdotes of interventions that parents felt were actually harmful to their children’s development. Sowell suggests that children with the Einstein Syndrome will begin to talk when their brains reach a crucial stage of development, and that trying to train or force them to talk sooner is fruitless. This idea is supported by his “no free lunch” model of brain development: children with precocious analytical abilities may be developing those by diverting resources from areas of the brain responsible for expressive language. On the other hand, Sowell’s sample of case studies was taken from a small group of self-selected families who were dissatisfied with the diagnoses and treatments their children had received. He doesn’t take into account that many others, such as Jacob, have benefited from early speech therapy.

While The Einstein Syndrome offers a hopeful interpretation of delayed language development in children who otherwise exhibit high ability, without further research it could mislead caregivers and significantly impact the healthy development of young children. Sowell’s theory leaves many questions unanswered, and sends mixed messages to parents about whether or not to have their late-talkers evaluated by professionals. Sowell, whose expertise is in economics, repeatedly encourages parents to reject the diagnoses of professionals in educational psychology and medicine. His understanding of autism spectrum disorders is not nuanced, and he is not an expert on autism.

The window of time during which young children can easily acquire language is only a few years, and there are great benefits to early intervention for children on the autism spectrum or with speech delay. The wait-and-see approach, advocated by Sowell, diminishes the opportunity for language acquisition in young children during the period when the brain is most malleable. While The Einstein Syndrome discusses a real problem—the misdiagnosis of gifted late-talkers—it does not solve that problem, and creates a new “syndrome” which unfortunately encourages non-professionals to diagnose late-talkers based on an unsubstantiated theory.

Suggested Resources:

Book Misdiagnosis and Dual-Diagnoses of Gifted Children and Adults

Article Misdiagnosis and Dual-Diagnosis of Gifted Children

PHP Blog Supporting Your Gifted Child: How to Find a Therapist


This post originally appeared on the National Association for Gifted Children’s Parenting for High Potential blog.


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Advice for the Next Generation



I’ve seen this floating around several times.  It wasn’t actually written by Bill Gates (the real author was Charles J. Sykes,) and its drill sergeant style message doesn’t seem like something Gates would endorse. I decided to write my own version.

Rule 1. Life is not fair, so speak up about inequities and do your best to make life fairer.

Rule 2. Be confident in your abilities. Don’t listen to people who don’t care about the feelings of others.

Rule 3. Money, cars, and gadgets are not equivalent to “success.”

Rule 4. If your teacher is a bully, switch classes. If your boss is a bully, switch jobs. You don’t need toxic people in your life.

Rule 5. Flipping burgers can earn you some money and help you gain work experience, but it’s not a career. Aspire to something more.

Rule 6. You’ll mess up. Your parents will mess up. That’s part of being human. Don’t beat yourself or others up for mistakes, just do your best to learn from them.

Rule 7. Before you were born, your parents had different lives than they do now. The world is changing rapidly, and it’s important to pay attention to how we are affecting the environment.

Rule 8. Don’t buy into the idea that the artificial competition of school has anything to do with leading a productive and satisfying life.

Rule 9. If you can, travel, study, and work in other countries. You need to experience more than the town where you grew up to understand how you can be part of global society.

Rule 10. Entertainment and the media present a distorted view of the world. Question what you see.

Rule 11. Be a nerd. Be a geek. In other words, be passionate in your pursuit of knowledge and develop your expertise.

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