Spinal muscular atrophy is a chronic disease characterised by loss of motor function. The aim of the study was to analyse cognitive functions in a large group of patients with spinal muscular atrophy. It was hypothesised that their intelligence is comparable to controls, but not above average as previously postulated. Ninety-six children and adolescents with spinal muscular atrophy I-III, aged 6.0-18.11 years, 45 non-affected siblings and 59 healthy, matched controls were examined with one- (CPM/SPM), as well as multi-dimensional intelligence tests (Kaufman-ABC; Wechsler tests). The mean IQ measured with the CPM/SPM tests was 109.6 for the spinal muscular atrophy group, 107.3 for the sibs and 104.1 for the healthy controls (no significant difference). In the older children and adolescents (SPM only) the mean IQ was significantly higher for the spinal muscular atrophy patients (109.6) than for the controls (95.4). The standard score in the 'mental processing composite' scale of the Kaufman-ABC was identical in the spinal muscular atrophy group and controls (103.8). The cognitive profile was relatively homogeneous. However, the older children and adolescents did have a significantly higher verbal IQ (113.8) than controls (104.6) in the Wechsler tests. There were no significant differences in any of the tests among different grades of severity (spinal muscular atrophy types I-III). It can be concluded that children and adolescents with spinal muscular atrophy have a general intelligence in the normal range. By adolescence, environmentally mediated aspects of intelligence are higher in patients with spinal muscular atrophy. It could be speculated that the development of cognitive skills and knowledge is a creative way to compensate the many restrictions due to their physical handicap.