Young bonobo may be expressing symptoms of autism

Researchers are studying the behavior and genetics of a bonobo chimpanzee who appears to display symptoms similar to those seen in autistic children. The youngster, Teco, is a son of Kanzi, whom you might remember as one of the "talking" apes that some researchers believe have learned to communicate with humans using picture boards and other tools.

Teco had trouble bonding with his mother, who turned him over to an aunt, who reportedly passed the baby on to the human caretakers at the Iowa Great Apes Trust.

Teco.jpg That's when they began to notice that he also showed various autism-like symptoms: lack of eye contact, strict adherence to rituals or routines, repetitive behaviors, and an interest in objects rather than in social contact. A blanket, for example, has to be arranged just so or else Teco becomes agitated, says scientific director William Fields. Teco also shows repetitive movements similar to those seen in some children with autism.

"He seemed to be fascinated by parts of objects, like wheels and other things, and he wasn't developing joint attention," Fields adds. "The baby was avoiding eye contact -- it was like it was painful for him."

In people, differences in eye movements and eye contact are early signs of autism. According to Fields, who has studied the apes for more than a decade, eye contact is even more important to social communication in bonobos than it is in humans.

This month, another group of researchers reported that bonobos have more developed neural circuitry than do chimpanzees in parts of the brain involved in emotion and empathy. These brain regions, such as the amygdala, the hypothalamus and the prefrontal cortex, are also areas that show differences in people with autism. The work provides a kind of mirror image to Teco's story: If the structure of the social brain is similar in humans and bonobos, perhaps it's not so surprising that social abnormalities can look similar in the two species as well.

Given some of the problems associated with studies of apes and language learning—suffice to say, human caretakers are prone to interpreting the behavior of their charges in ways that don't always match up with what outside researchers see—I would be interested to get some second and third opinions on Teco. But, if this perspective on his behavior turns out to be widely accepted, it could offer some unique insights into the genetic and evolutionary basis of autism. Cool stuff!

Via Virginia Hughes

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    1. I was going to say “inb4 vaccines-cause-autism nuttery,” but I see you were Johnny on the spot with that one. Just let me know where you are so that I can keep my kids away from yours. :/

      I, too, am very interested in a better understanding of disorders like autism that affect the brain. I know that there are treatments for autistic children that involve intense socialization to overcome their aversion to human interaction. Do you suppose they will attempt to treat this Bonobo baby in the same way or let the disorder run its natural course so that we can continue to observe an autistic Bonobo’s behavior and development? I could certainly see the use in doing that. We might learn something about the efficacy of our treatments, even if the baby sees no benefit. And who knows… what if he does? All the better for him, I think.

      Then again, something else entirely could be going on here that could yield equally compelling insight into the primate brain. Even if it doesn’t significantly impact our understanding of the human brain, it’s worth knowing as much as we can about our nearest cousins.

  1. Not to sound like an ass, but Bonobos and Chimpanzees are different species. A Bonobo is not a type of Chimp.

  2. Anybody else think it’s kind of crass to end a blog post about a monkey suffering from a disease like autism with “Cool stuff!”?

    1. I’ve read a lot of blogs written by autistic people that have been quite frank about the fact that only suffering they really feel like they experience is discrimination by non-autistic people. Reading the full article, it seems like the bonobo is growing up in a supportive environment. So I have pretty strong doubts that he’s “suffering” in any way.

      Shorter answer: Neurodiversity is not a tragedy, and I don’t feel the need to treat it as such.

      1. Neurodiversity is not a tragedy, and I don’t feel the need to treat it as such.

        PREACH!

        1. Sigh…

          It was too much to hope for a meaningful conversation about the brain. Instead it’s all language policing and other forms of self flattering insanity. Someone get these people some cookies.

      2. While your comment is obviously supportive, I would say it’s probably a little limiting to say people with autism ONLY suffer from discrimination. The very nature of this spectrum condition makes it impossible to generalise. Everybody is different, and I think some of the guys and girls on the high end of the spectrum find it pretty challenging.

        I also agree with “Anon” – calling it a disorder seems pretty stupid. Research indicates it might be something to do with a different brain activity bias (different to the majority that is). Disorder is the wrong word. Disease is definately the wrong word lol.

        Maybe my son will tell me what it’s like one day. I suspect he will be amazed people don’t think the way he does ;)

        1. “While your comment is obviously supportive, I would say it’s probably a little limiting to say people with autism ONLY suffer from discrimination. The very nature of this spectrum condition makes it impossible to generalise. Everybody is different, and I think some of the guys and girls on the high end of the spectrum find it pretty challenging.”

          Both ends of the spectrum have its ups and downs. At the shallow end, hello aspies, one can pass for NT until stressed or something else makes one appear “odd”. End result is that one can go forever without really fitting in but not have a definitive answer why. If one can buckle down and get degree somewhere then maybe one have a future, if not one is up shit creek. Just strange enough to not fit in, not strange enough to be picked up by the system.

    2. Actually have a kid with autism, and think any animal model that could lead to making her life easier is cool stuff.

  3. In again before I’m further misunderstood. I’m a bit of an aspie; it happens.

    I’m pro-vaccination, and my kids and I are current on all our shots. Moreover, my youngest is young enough that, even with all the shots she’s had, she’s still mostly relying on herd immunity at this point. That being the case, I have every reason to encourage people to immunize.

    My first thought was that these bonobos probably hadn’t had any vaccinations, and we could use this to refute the anti-vac crowd. My second thought is that it’s possible that bonobos get vaccinations; they’re close enough to humans that they might be subject to diseases brought by human handlers, even if the captive population is disease-free. And I’m accustomed to dogs and cats being vaccinated for a number of diseases. My fear is that any vaccines this bonobo has received will be used as further (anecdotal, dubious, pretty much meaningless) evidence that autism is caused by vaccines.

    If there’s no information on this bonobo’s vaccination history, I’m afraid the anti-vac crowd will seize on this, by analogy to Obama’s mythical hidden long form birth certificate.

    1. In that case I apologize for jumping to conclusions. That’s a sensible approach to the situation.

  4. Why is everyone here referring to Autism as a “disorder”. The only difference is that we think more than feel. Or is thinking considered to be morally wrong nowadays?

  5. To all of you for whom the mere mention of the word autism is enough to start you gibbering about the anti-vac movement, albeit with mockery, is what one might consider perseverative behavior, which is considered an autistic trait.

    So yeah, along with squirrel let me put it another way. STFU!!!!!

    And, Maggie, my fangirl-dom for you runs deep, but as a mother of a child on the spectrum, “Cool Stuff!” kinda made me wince. Although, I know you meant no harm unlike many of the commenters above.

  6. I don’t know whether this story is scary or comforting. Poor Teco! He can come live at my house with my own little ASD human monkey.

  7. It’s blindingly-neon-obvious to me that a child’s need to understand the world trumps everything.

    Deprived of normal parental feedback, he picks another touchstone — physical reality.

    Were he a human child, he would become a scientist.

  8. You know, between this and the new ‘planet of the apes’ trailer, you guys are beginning to freak me out JUST a little.

  9. Teco is, of course, the only Bonobo who has a chance to discover fire: the rest of them are too busy hanging out with their buds.

    Why not study cat brains? All cats are autistic; albeit without the problems involved in nteracting with statistically normal humans because cats are so cute and furry.

  10. A very interesting read, thanks!

    A minor quibble: “that some researchers believe have learned to communicate with humans using picture boards and other tools.”

    That is a too tentative way to state the current state of research on the matter I think. Kanzi’s pictorial language communication skills is by now very well established. Deniers are by now on the scientific fringe. Kanzi’s skills are far more advanced than hundreds of millions now living humans who, I’m sure, you would never use such tentative phrasing for, when describing their communication skills.

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