For years, evidence has pointed towards a connection between autism and extreme intelligence. Einstein, Mozart and Newton are among those researchers believe suffered from the disorder.
But a direct link between the two has been difficult to find, since there are many types of autism and in some cases it has the exact opposite impact on a person's mental capacity – up to 70 per cent of Individuals with autism have an intellectual disability.
Researchers from Universities in Scotland and Australia have worked together to uncover a genetic link between the two for the first time. Using a random selection of 10,000 people in Scotland, they measured each individual's intelligence and then studied their genes.
The results, published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, showed that even if a person never develops autism, carrying genetic traits associated with it is linked to higher intelligence.
When they carried out the same tests on 921 adolescents who were part of the Brisbane Adolescent Twin Study, an identical connection appeared.
"Our findings show that genetic variation which increases risk for autism is associated with better cognitive ability in non-autistic individuals,” explained professor Toni-Kim Clarke, lead researcher in the study.
Symptoms of autism range from a complete inability to communicate with others to a slight difficulty in understanding other people's feelings. Higher levels of anxiety, obsessive-compulsive-disorder and Tourette's syndrome often occur in families where autism is present, suggesting a genetic link.
But another symptom of the disorder, which has led to some of the world's greatest inventions and discoveries, is an immense capacity for non-verbal reasoning.
The findings of this study don't indicate that only those who actually have the disorder are geniuses – people with nothing more than a genetic predisposition for autism also tend to have greater cognitive ability. Close relatives of autistic people are likely to be positively influenced in this way.
“As we begin to understand how genetic variants associated with autism impact brain function, we may begin to further understand the nature of autistic intelligence,” said Clarke.