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Opinion

An ape with ‘autism’

by  /  15 April 2011

Uncommon ape: Teco, a young bonobo born in captivity, exhibits behaviors similar to those seen in people with autism.

Similarities between us and our closest ape relatives — chimpanzees and bonobos — have shaped our understanding of what it means to be human. The latest surprise is Teco, a young bonobo who shows behaviors that look suspiciously similar to those associated with autism.

Teco is the son of Kanzi, a 30-year-old bonobo whose use of symbols to communicate with humans made him famous. The two live with five other bonobos at the Great Ape Trust, a nonprofit research institute in Des Moines, Iowa, that is the site of a long-term study on ape language and culture.

Researchers at the institute noticed Teco was different almost as soon as he was born. Most ape infants reflexively cling to their mother’s fur, but Teco didn’t. He had to be supported and carried to keep him from falling, making it difficult for his first-time mother Elikya to care for her baby.

When Teco was 2 months old, Elikya handed the baby off to his aunt, as if asking for help. The aunt, Panbanisha, brought him to institute staff, who took on more of the responsibility for rearing Teco.

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.

The team at the Great Ape Trust plans to undertake a genetic analysis of Teco and the other six bonobos in the colony. They have already begun sequencing Kanzi’s genome.

Differences in gene sequence or expression between Teco and the other bonobos could help explain Teco’s symptoms — and perhaps also lend insight into autism in people.

The researchers have also begun the bonobo equivalent of early intervention, encouraging Teco to use objects in a social way — to play ball with someone, for example, rather than just getting lost in examining the ball on his own.

They also try to catch and hold Teco’s gaze — even if it means getting down on the floor so that they can look up at him. Interestingly, one of the other bonobos, Nyota, uses the same strategy to engage with the little one.

These ploys have improved Teco’s eye contact and social behavior, although he still has other autism-like features.

“There are moments when he just seems so completely normal, and there are other times when it’s clear how different he is,” Fields says, sounding strikingly like a parent of a child with autism. “He’s charming and wonderful and we love him, but he is different.”


  • Anonymous

    NICE OBSERVATIONS.

    Duane

  • Anonymous

    It’s funny that it was observed that it was painful for Teco to make eye contact. That is the truth for us on the spectrum that have issues with too little eye contact. What an interesting bonobo!

  • Anonymous

    I thought this observation was really amazing. How will TECO get along with the other Bonobos? Could there be more autism with parents who are older? Margo

  • Anonymous

    When I read this, I was bowled over. I don’t normally comment on things, but I think this is warranted.
    I’m amazed at what this could mean for the study of autism, and disorders of the like. Hopefully we will come even closer to discover what is truly involved, but comparing our own conditions to those of our close relatives the bonobos.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for all your interest in the story!

    Pc, yes, it is amazing to think about the importance of eye contact in both bonobos and humans–what may seem like such a small gesture can play a big role in social communication, that one might not notice unless it is difficult or lacking.

    margo, with these symptoms just being observed in one bonobo it is hard to draw any conclusions about the effect of older parents. However, it does seem that both the bonobos and humans who are part of Teco’s world are working very hard to take care of him and integrate him into the social group even though he is different.

    hadrian, you are right, there is a lot of insight to be gained about ourselves from understanding our close relatives the bonobos.

  • Anonymous

    What are the implications for the human species of Teko showing signs of autism?

  • Anonymous

    Diana, at a very concrete level, I think this means that we may have a new route to insights into the genetic underpinnings of autism–if the genetic analysis of Teko and his family members can lead us to genes that may be involved in his symptoms, and if we can then connect those with similar genes in humans.

    In a larger sense, though, I think the significance lies in the fact that both humans and bonobos were able to recognize in a very nuanced way Teko’s social differences. It’s a pretty powerful demonstration of inter- and intra-species empathy.

  • oldgreywolf

    Did Nyota adopt this behavior after observing humans do it, or is she demonstrating either: (a) Prior experience with autistic youngsters (assuming she wasn’t born there); or (b) original adaptation to a new situation?
    Unlike his wild counterparts, Teco can look forward to a high probability of survival. Especially having two families that care.

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