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Autism Linked to Genius? Well, of Course!

By October 8, 2008

An unsurprising finding was recently announced in the London Times, confirming what most members of the autism community already know: autism, math, music and memory appear to be linked. According to the article:
Some people with autism have amazed experts with their outstanding memories, mathematical skills or musical talent. Now scientists have found that the genes thought to cause autism may also confer mathematical, musical and other skills on people without the condition.

The finding has emerged from a study of autism among 378 Cambridge University students, which found the condition was up to seven times more common among mathematicians than students in other disciplines. It was also five times more common in the siblings of mathematicians.

While this finding doesn't really qualify as "new" in the usual sense of the word, it is a nice confirmation that autism really does have its "up" sides. In fact, according to some, Asperger syndrome may actually account for the extraordinary contributions of such geniuses as Einstein, Mozart, and Galileo!

So far, no one has actually identified the "genius" gene. But if there really is one - what a find it will be! Not only will it help to improve society's perception of autism, but it may also support better educational approaches, higher expectations, and improved self-esteem among people with autism. It may also be one more reason to question the idea that most autism is caused by environmental injury rather than heredity.

In fact, as research into the causes and significance of autism continues, it seems clearer and clearer to me that there are at least several completely different disorders now bunched together under the same "spectrum" umbrella. Inherited traits, such as mathematical genius and social awkwardness seem to describe only one form of "autism." Other forms seem to include a completely separate set of symptoms, ranging from loss of communication skills to physical illness, sensitivities to certain foods, and more.

I guess you could say we're living in interesting times....

October 8, 2008 at 3:06 pm
(1) 'B' says:

I have aspergers but i have awful memory, I suck at math and I cant play any instrument.

October 8, 2008 at 5:05 pm
(2) Jenn says:

B, you make a very good point. Generalizations do not help anyone – especially the public – understand Aspergers or Autism.

October 8, 2008 at 5:27 pm
(3) EKSwitaj says:

You realize that living in interesting times is a curse, right?

To follow up on what ‘B’ had to say: while I, another aspergian, actually do have an above-average aptitude for math and quite an impressive memory, I don’t play any instruments very well (unless you count the human voice).

Moreover, my talents are primarily linguistic, and I feel that stories like these try to paint me into a corner where I don’t belong.

Of course, I guess I already am something of an unusual aspie being female.

October 8, 2008 at 9:01 pm
(4) Sandy says:

I enjoyed this study. Of any disability, people tend to find the positive things about it and of al the negative things surrounding autism, I think this article is refreshing.
My son does not have savant skills but he does have a whopping great memory (his oldest memory being before he was 1 years old) and he’s very good with math. When speaking with him, I don’t attribute these things to his autism, although I probably could, but I tell him even though things can be very hard for him, there are some things he’s still very good at.

October 9, 2008 at 8:21 am
(5) Jeannie says:

I have to say I always thought my son is a genius…he knew his entire alphabet by 18m, he could count to 30, he could count to ten in Spanish, etc. Now that he’s 4 he’s already reading and writing. BUT all my kids are smart (I have 4)and his older sisters literally always score 90s or above. So I didn’t attribute it to his Autism…I like to take credit for it!! ;-) Just kidding, a little. I look at it as a potential means of him learning to deal his autism and find his own niche in our uptight critical judgemental world.

October 9, 2008 at 8:36 am
(6) Bill says:

I have been professionally diagnosed with Asperger’s, and I have siblings and children on the spectrum. My observation of our common talents are prodigious memories (you do NOT want to challenge us to a game of trivial pursuit!)- this may be related to the high ratio of gray nerve cells observed in autism. We think three dimensionally- walk through an engineering office and you will see cubicles decorated with maps; engineers love to study maps. I played with Lincoln Logs and Tinkertoys, my children played with Legos and Construx sets, always building symmetrical three dimensional artifacts. Science says we lack mirror neurons- lacking them, we compensate for a lack of intrinsic ability to interpret social relations by treating other people as robots with unknown programming. We observe their actions, and create sets of logic rules based on cause and effect. It is a tedious process which some Autists never master. Some autists like my one son excel at it so well that he callously manipulates neurotypicals. Living life by language and logic rules naturally predisposes autists to excelling at writing software and learning languages (I also speak German, Spanish, French and Russian to varying levels of fluency). Thinking three dimensionally permits excelling at engineering. I myself excel at controls engineering, where you have to think multi-dimensionally- I have to keep track of a process not only in three dimensions, but also the dimensions of time, temperature, pressure, speed, flow, and chemical or liquid/vapor state.
There are gaps in my ability; I still cannot easily recall things which are abstract and not easily pictured in the mind, like for instance, the multiplication tables. I cannot remember mathematical formulas- in college, when I needed a mathematical formula in a closed-book test, I would have to derive the formula from the basic units and physical relationships. I “sucked” at math- yet one semester later I could take an engineering course which utilized the same mathematics and apply it, because instead of being abstract symbols on paper, it was a flow which I could picture in my mind. I have worked at several employers spread through several industries, and it is obvious to me that at least a quarter of engineers have noticeable autistic traits, and I suspect many others have it too, they are just good at “pretending to be normal”. Some with the more obvious traits do have trouble integrating with the non-engineering world. Many of the best engineers, the ones with the “big picture”, the ones with broad knowledge and attention to detail, are Asperger geeks.
One other observation- most geeks I know appear to have essential autism, the inherited type I and my siblings have, but occasionally I come across an engineer with the ears rotated back, the hallmark of autism caused by fetal damage at 22 weeks of gestation, and they are damn good engineers too.

March 7, 2011 at 2:13 pm
(7) Valentina says:

My child is 3 and he learned to read by 2.5. He seems to have delayed echolalia, never had him tested. He can hum back the most difficult of classic masterpieces. He is friendly, playful, knows his shapes, colors and planets. He loves to walk around with a coat hanger, eat fruits and veggies, raw onions is one of his favorites. He loves to wrestle and play, and I am so confused, scared and don’t know what to do. so afraid he will be misdiagnosed. Can someone help me. Does all this sum up to autism?

March 7, 2011 at 2:25 pm
(8) Lisa says:

Valentina – there’s absolutely no way for anyone to know what (if anything!) is up with your son without meeting him and evaluating him.

Best choice, if you’re concerned, is to talk with your pediatrician and set up a full eval. Who knows: he may just be a very bright kid!


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