The IQ of adults with mild intellectual disability (ID) can be improved if they study in a university-based program, according to a new, preliminary study at the Faculty of Education at Bar-Ilan University (BIU) in Ramat Gan.
The findings revealed significant IQ improvement among the 12 adults after four-and-a-half years of participation in post-secondary education (PSE) compared to 12 with the same intelligence level and lifestyle who did not participate in PSE; the IQ of the control group remained stable. Fourteen were women and 10 men.
BIU Prof. Hefziba Lifshitz said that the IQ of those who received a university education exceeded the cutoff point of the ID definition among five of the 12 adults who studied and were tested. Next month, six of them will become the first in Israel to complete all academic requirements for a bachelor’s degree. It is believed that until now, only three additional ID individuals in the world have received that degree.
The results have just been published in the European Journal of Special Needs Education under the title “Postsecondary University Education Improves Intelligence of Adult Students with Intellectual Disability: A Preliminary Study.”
What is the Empowerment Project?
The Empowerment Project, a first-of-its-kind program that Lifshitz established, is based on her Compensation Age Theory, which postulates that chronological age, as opposed to mental age, plays an important role in determining the cognitive ability of adults with intellectual disabilities. Lifshitz and her BIU colleagues determined that intelligence in ID individuals reaches its peak at around 40 to 45 years old, providing a window of opportunity for additional, meaningful education and enabling ID adults to develop and maximize their potential later in life.
The Empowerment Project includes 120 adults at all levels of intellectual disability – mild-moderate as well as severe-profound, providing college-level courses adapted to their needs. Half of the participants live in community residences for adults with ID under the supervision of the Welfare and Social Affairs Ministry, and half live at home with their parents.
The most academically capable students in the program can earn a bachelor’s degree. All 12 students participating in this study began their studies in the 2014/2015 academic year.
“We know that our project contributes to the improvement of cognitive ability, but I was curious to examine whether it would influence their intelligence.”Hefziba Lifshitz
The Weschler Adult Intelligence Test was administered during the third year of study. A second test was administered four-and-a-half years later. “We know that our project contributes to the improvement of cognitive ability, but I was curious to examine whether it would influence their intelligence,” Lifshitz recalled. “Among those students studying for a BA, IQ recorded for the second time exceeded the cutoff point of the ID definition, which is between 70 and 75. They reached 80, and some even higher. This is an amazing development.”
Though some more and some less, IQ increased in all of the PSE participants, according to Lifshitz, who conducted the study with Dr. Shoshana Nissim, Dr. Chaya Aminadav and Prof. Eli Vakil.
The Empowerment Project is the first in the world to open adapted enrichment college for students with severe-profound ID who require extensive support. Due to physical disabilities, they can’t attend university in person, so the project offers courses on-site in their daycare centers.
Lifshitz says that in addition to their IQ improvement, their self-esteem is also much higher. This can be seen in how they carry themselves and in their body language, and on the university campus, they feel like insiders rather than outsiders.
“Intelligence is a general mental capability. It includes reasoning, planning, problem-solving, abstract thinking and learning from experience,” they wrote. “The Empowerment Project is derived from the United Nations convention that calls for ensuring accessibility of persons with disabilities “to general tertiary education, vocational training, adult education and lifelong learning without discrimination.”
Students with mild ID attended four academic courses once a week. In the second year, they were integrated in undergraduate classes of typical students and audited the courses. The academic requirements, class tasks and examinations are adapted to their level.
The students were accompanied by academic facilitators (graduates of the MA program in ID) and received an additional academic hour of mediation for each academic hour in the university course. The conceptual goal was to promote knowledgeable, intelligent, motivated and resourceful students with ID and their ability to cope with the difficulties and challenges posed by the program.
They added that “generalization from this small sample should be made with caution. To determine whether intelligence will continue to increase, follow-up testing should be administered when the students in both models finish all 64 credits. This will help uncover whether individuals with ID exhibit an upper threshold for intelligence growth.”