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.

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