Is Autism Linked to Higher Intelligence?
Author: Vedika Vaghmare
E = mc^2 is one of science’s most significant equations. This mass-energy equivalence relativity concept contributed to sending the first man on the moon back in the 1960s and building history’s most powerful weapons. The formula was made by none other than Albert Einstein, the father of modern physics. In the early 2000s, as psychologists were looking further into the criteria for the autism spectrum disorder (ASD), many came to the conclusion that Einstein displayed behaviors that suggested he was on the spectrum. The possibility of uttering the words ‘autism’ and ‘genius’ in the same sentence may seem surprising, but with a second look, it is not as impossible as it is perceived
What does research say?
Autistic people are often associated with the stigma that comes along with being challenged by their environment. A person with the disorder has cognitive abilities that are less than rudimentaryㅡ they struggle with the lack of potential to complete tasks that neurotypical minds don’t usually have to face (University of Edinburgh). Generally, the condition is categorized with an immense focus on the sheer quality of things such as sound, color, and scent.
One of the many theories for the cause of autistic people’s heightened sensory awareness is that it is partially due to the abnormality in the brain’s left hemisphere permitting a vast amount of sensory details to enter the brain awareness (Crespi). The resulting effect of this high attention to detail leads to the direct correlation to hyperintelligence.
Research has shown that people diagnosed with ASD have certain genes that give them the capacity of higher intellect. It is important to note that autism is biologically induced—with 90% of genes determining if someone will have the condition (Crespi). In 2017, scientists identified forty genes that contribute to levels of intelligence; as it turns out, these genes are also linked with autism.
Studies have also found that people who scored higher on cognitive tests have autistic genes, and those already diagnosed with the disorder have “smart” genes (Szalavitz). In addition, the neurological basis of intelligence has been well established for certain types of phenotypes including larger brain size, rapid brain growth, increased ability to focus attention, and deliberate decision making skills (Crespi). These intelligence quotas are proved to be shared with autistic people, supporting the idea that the two are connected.
A model widely used by the scientific community to measure intelligence is the division between “fluid” and “crystallized.” Fluid intelligence is the ability to use logic and solve puzzles whereas crystallized is more of the acquired knowledge such as what you typically learn in school (Hurley). According to Bernard Crespi, fluid intelligence is increased in patients with autism, whereas crystalized is decreased. This imbalance raises the question for which is more important when considering the term “genius” (Crespi). Although this experiment does not have exact answers, fluid intelligence raises creativity levels, provoking more use of imagination and problem-solving.
A Musical Prodigy
Image by Alberto E. Rodriguez via Getty Images
Meet Derek Paravicini! Derek deals with a learning disability, and is considered to be on the autism spectrum. He was born premature, at the age of 25 weeks, and lost his sight due to a procedure that was needed to save his life. Growing up, he had a certain appeal to music and sound. At the age of two, he learned to play the piano and by the age of 4, he had mastered complex pieces such as Smoke Get in Your Eyes. It was apparent that Derek had an extreme talent in musicㅡ with a perfect pitch, he is able to play any composition after hearing it once!
Now Derek is a successful musical prodigy, featured on television series such as Extraordinary People, and Stan Lee’s Superhumans, while also performing in numerous venues around the world. Although Derek is blind and autistic, he is also a genius in music. Take a minute to hear the amazing pianist play Flight of the Bumblebee by Rimsky-Korsakov here!
Societal views on the definition of a genius vary, ranging from someone that is an expert in all areas to someone in just one specific field. These definitions influence the way autistic people are seen, deeming them as not sufficient in fitting into the restrictions of what it means to be a “genius”. If one were to better understand an autistic person, they would observe that they are humans with a unique perspective of the world creating a different definition of intelligence, one that neurotypical minds cannot experience.
Autism is a disorder that many cannot explain; a term used as an umbrella for the diverse forms that display the symptoms. While stigmatized, the fact remains that there is a correlation between autism and higher intelligence with speculation for a causative relationship. The trends in the ASD population are marked with notable people such as inventors, scientists, actors and many more in history. Research and studies have received scientific conclusions backed with data to prove while neurodivergent, autistic people certainly contribute much to the world thus appropriating the association with intelligence.
Author: Vedika Vaghmare
Vedika is a Junior in highschool who is interested in science and math. In her free time, she enjoys making art, listening to music, and spending time with her family!
Crespi, Bernard J. “Autism As a Disorder of High Intelligence.” Frontiers in neuroscience (June 2016). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4927579/.
Hurley, Dan. “Can You Make Yourself Smarter?” The New York Times (April 22, 2012). https://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/22/magazine/can-you-make-yourself-smarter.html.
Simonton, Dean Keith. “The Science of Genius.” Scientific American Mind. Vol. 23, Issue 5 (November/ December 2012): 34-41.
Szalavitz, Maia. “What Genius and Autism Have in Common.” Time (July 2012). healthland.time.com/2012/07/10/what-child-prodigies-and-autistic-people-have-in-common/.
University of Edinburgh. "Autism risk genes also linked to higher intelligence." ScienceDaily (March 2015). www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/03/150310105232.htm .