We’re all familiar with the caricature of the stereotypical nerd: male, glasses, nasally monotonic voice, pedantic, obscure sense of humor, highly intelligent, calculators spilling from every pocket, and woefully socially inept. Our concept couldn’t have been summarized better than in the ’80s movie, Revenge of the Nerds.
Interestingly, these same stereotypes share much in common with stereotypes our society has of high-functioning autistic males. As early as Leo Kanner’s original publication, there have been links between autism and high IQ. Though there’s debate about selection bias, Kanner noticed that the parents of his autistic patients were often intelligent and highly educated.
Do autism and high intelligence share common features? For one, Bernier et al. (2012) found that parents of autistic children from multiplex families, in contrast to simplex families, were more likely to exhibit subtle autistic features themselves. Baron-Cohen also reported that autism occurred more in families of physicists, engineers, and mathematicians, a finding which he has tied to his Extreme Male Brain Theory of Autism. There’s been much work over the last decade that suggests that there are distinctive patterns to genetic inheritance in multiplex vs. simplex families. It is has been reported that simplex cases may be overrepresented by more severely disabling de novo (new) mutations unseen in the parents; meanwhile, multiplex genetic inheritance likely represents milder– and possibly also polygenic– forms, allowing them to be passed down over multiple generations with less disruption.
A new study by Clarke et al. (2015) reports that higher intelligence in the general population is strongly correlated with inheritance of genetic risk factors for autism, reinforcing the concept that autism and human intelligence share some common roots. At the same time, the researchers found that genetic risk factors for ADHD did not show significant links with intelligence.
It has been fairly well accepted that giftedness is overrepresented in the autistic population, though it’s been poorly researched beyond anything qualitative. Savantism has been noted in individuals from all ranges of functioning and many high-functioning autistics may also fall under the umbrella of Twice Exceptional (2e). It has also become the fad to posthumously diagnose famous or even fictional individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome. For instance, in Dr. Michael Fitzgerald’s book, The Genesis of Artistic Creativity, he reviews what he identifies as autistic-like traits of famous writers, philosophers, musicians, and painters such as William Butler Yeats, Immanuel Kant, Mozart, and Andy Warhol.
Why have we become so entranced by the idea that with great ability can often come disability? Perhaps it’s our fondness of romanticized notions, or expecting the unexpected. Who, after all, wouldn’t be shocked to find that a severely disabled blind autistic man was an incredible musical savant? On the flip side, our fascination with ability in disability may cause us to underestimate the difficulties that people with autism may have. Many parents of severely affected children, for instance, feel that our society’s focus on the positives of autism, particularly those more often associated with high functioning forms, detracts from public awareness and help for those who will likely never lead independent lives. On the flip side, why would we not want to celebrate a person’s ability in the face of harsh challenges? Thus, we would wish neither to over-paint a rosey picture nor demonize a person’s condition but find a middle ground in our perception of this extraordinarily diverse group of conditions.
The idea that a single group of complex conditions can span the gambit from intellectual disability to genius is a scientifically fascinating idea and suggests that at least some forms of ability and disability have more in common than meets the eye. I for one would love to know whether evolution of the human intellect has led to an increased risk for developing conditions like autism, which may help to explain their frequency. And the recent publication by Bernier et al. would suggest that may well be the case.