A study has found new evidence linking genetic factors associated with autism to better cognitive ability in people who do not have the condition - which means like many things in genetics it could be a small variation that separates a benefit from a detriment.

Autism is a disability often marked by significant language and speech difficulties but there is no firm relationship between autism and intelligence. Up to 70 percent of individuals with autism do have an intellectual disability but some people with the disorder have well-preserved, or even higher than average, non-verbal intelligence. Non-verbal intelligence is how people solve complex problems using visual and hands-on reasoning skills with little or no use of language.   

Researchers at the Universities of Edinburgh and Queensland analyzed the data of almost 10,000 people recruited from the general population of Scotland. Individuals were tested for general cognitive ability and had their DNA analyzed. The team found that even among people who never develop autism, carrying genetic traits associated with the disorder is, on average, linked to scoring slightly better on cognitive tests. 

Researchers found further evidence of a link between autism-associated genes and intelligence when they carried out the same tests on 921 adolescents who were part of the Brisbane Adolescent Twin Study. 

Dr Toni-Kim Clarke, of the University of Edinburgh's Division of Psychiatry, who led the study, said, "Our findings show that genetic variation which increases risk for autism is associated with better cognitive ability in non-autistic individuals. 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."

Professor Nick Martin, of the Queensland Institute for Medical Research, said, "Links between autism and better cognitive function have been suspected and are widely implied by the well-known "Silicon Valley syndrome" and films such as "Rain Man" as well as in popular literature. This study suggests genes for autism may actually confer, on average, a small intellectual advantage in those who carry them, provided they are not affected by autism."

 Published in Molecular Psychiatry. The research was funded by the Chief Scientist Office of the Scottish Government Health and Social Care Directorates, Scottish Funding Council, The Wellcome Trust, The Medical Research Council and Age UK.