Before autism was officially recognized as a disorder, it fell under the category of mental retardation or a learning disability. Historically, autism was believed to be closely related to intellectual disability, a category for people with IQs below 70. However new studies have emerged that indicate the contrary: autism is strongly associated with intelligence. In fact, scientists believe that many revolutionary scientists such as Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein may have been on the autism spectrum.
Scientists have long known that intelligence and mental disorders can be inherited by one’s children. However, they knew very little of the precise genes that controlled these traits. Last year, in 2017, researchers developed a new statistical method to find correlations between genes and traits. Using this method, and testing people on criteria such as math, synonyms, and logic, scientists were able to find 939 genes associated with intelligence in 250,000 individuals. Many of these genes were clustered in the basal ganglia, a part of the brain responsible for learning, cognition, and emotion. The team reported in Nature Genetics, that many of these genes were found in people who, on average, lived longer and had lower rates of mental diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, ADHD, or schizophrenia. However, to the main point of my blog, the scientists found that these genes correlated with a higher risk of autism.
In 2015, Cambridge University conducted a similar study on 500,000 people and found that autism was more common among people in STEM fields. Using a 50 question questionnaire, called the Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ), they found that people in STEM-related jobs had an average AQ score of 21.9, while those working in non-STEM jobs had an average score of 18.9. These scientists also believe that the genes responsible for autism are sex-linked, which may be the reason why autism is more prevalent in males. According to a study presented in the 2017 International Meeting for Autism Research, children with highly intelligent fathers (those with IQs above 111) are at a 31% higher risk of autism than those with fathers of average intelligence (those with IQs around 100).
Industry is also starting to recognize this untapped potential in people on the autism spectrum. People with autism generally have great attention to detail and persistence that makes them ideal for industries such as tech and engineering. Software company SAP shares that they plan to hire over 600 people on the autism spectrum, describing them as “underutilized” as they “bring diverse thinking to fuel innovation.” Similarly, companies such as JP Morgan and Microsoft have started autism-hiring programs and have found that people with autism are often more meticulous, dedicated and faster learners.
Overall, this science sheds a new light on autism disorder and could help lessen the stigma surrounding the disease. Hopefully more companies will follow in hiring more workers with autism and recognize the unique skill sets autistic workers possess. Lastly, scientists can now use the genes they identified as targets for new drugs to help autistic children.