July 19, Updated July 21

If you have ever gone on the Internet, you have likely, at least once, stumbled on an article offering tools on how to improve your IQ — learn a new language or instrument, or play chess.

But what about those struggling with intellectual disability — an umbrella term for those who have an IQ of 75 or lower?

Would the usual tricks and tips to boost IQ work for them? Now there’s an answer to that question, from Prof. Hefziba Lifshitz of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan.

The Empowerment Project

Lifshitz’s first-of-its-kind Empowerment Project is a study that examines whether academic enrichment can improve the IQ of adults with mild intellectual disability (ID).

“At first we noticed that it improves cognitive indices other than intelligence, like memory and language,” Lifshitz tells ISRAEL21c.

“Then, the question arose: Does it also improve intelligence? So, in 2014 we decided to apply the basics of the project to examine the implication of postsecondary education on intelligence.”

The 12 participants in the targeted study all began by attending specific postsecondary education programs, including isolated courses.

“But then we noticed six participants who excelled in comprehension, memory and language. So we decided to integrate them into regular bachelor’s degree courses.”

The pace of the degree for those taking part in the project is slower compared to regular students. “They started by taking one course per semester, then two and so on. It has taken them almost 10 years to complete.”

In June 2023, all six officially fulfilled the academic requirements for their bachelor’s degree. Lifshitz says that only three additional ID individuals in the world have received the same degree to date. 

A university boosts IQs of intellectually disabled adults
Graph showing increase in general IQ of students in the Empowerment Project. Photo courtesy of Prof. Hefziba Lifshitz.

The results, recently published in the European Journal of Special Needs Education, indicate that all participants saw single-digit improvements in their IQ scores.

Those who completed their BA degrees had their IQs increase by up to 10 points on the Weschler Adult Intelligence Test, administered during the third year of study and again four-and-a-half years later.

“Among those students studying for a BA, IQ recorded the second time exceeded the cutoff point of the ID definition, which is between 70 and 75. They reached 80, and some higher. This is an amazing development,” said Lifshitz, who conducted the study with Shoshana Nissim, Chaya Aminadav, and Prof. Eli Vakil from Bar-Ilan University.

Compensation age theory

Lifshitz also developed the compensation age theory (CAT), which is the basis for the study that encompasses the Empowerment Project.

The theory asserts that under appropriate environmental conditions and as a consequence of maturity and life experience, the level of cognitive functioning of those with mild ID can be notably elevated.

“For people with ID, adulthood serves as a period for compensation in cognitive development that was delayed during their formative years,” she explains, adding that those with ID sometimes reach their cognitive peak around 40 years of age.

“There is also the term ‘fluid intelligence,’ which includes memory and reasoning. For us, the so-called regulars, this fluid intelligence begins to decline slightly after the age of 20. Meanwhile, there is an increase in fluid intelligence among those with ID,” she points out.

“I am now researching the concept of giftedness among the population with ID. There are many people with low IQ, but not everyone can enter academic studies. It also requires motivation, emotional intelligence and maturity. The six who graduated [with BA degrees] had giftedness.”

Overlooked community

Lifshitz has spent her entire career researching the intellectually disabled and looking for ways to help them overcome the challenges of life.

“I began my career during my own BA studies, as an educational instructor for mentally challenged people at facilities sponsored by the Welfare Ministry,” she says.

After earning her PhD, she eventually became the head of Bar-Ilan’s master’s program on ID and founded the Empowerment Project in 2010.

She tells ISRAEL21c that she did not embark on this journey to help a loved one or a relative. She simply had a desire to empower this “overlooked” community, as she puts it.

“The message is that academic studies have the potential to boost the IQ and emotional indices of those who are mentally challenged. They must be entitled to [subsidized] postsecondary education,” she says. “Everyone needs to have a chance to study.”

Higher education for people with disabilities is not anchored in Israeli law. But in certain cases it is subsidized by the Division of Disability at the Welfare Ministry, as was the case for those who participated in the Empowerment Project.

Lifshitz adds that it is in the state’s interest to fund education for people with mental disabilities.

“They will also reach old age. We are helping to improve their cognitive reserves, so that when they do reach old age they won’t rely on the state so much because [their improved abilities] will prevent their functional decline.”  

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