• Fri, Sep 7 2007

Can Animals Have Autism?

Recent research studies have noted that “mutant mice with an autism gene display striking learning and memory skills mirroring those seen in human ‘savants’”; the September 6th Science Daily further suggests that a mouse model of autism spectrum disorders has been developed:

Mice with this mutation show a similar type of social impairment and cognitive enhancement as the type seen in some people with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs). ASDs are enigmatic cognitive disorders that impair a patient’s social interactions, but do not necessarily limit their intelligence.
The scientists said the mice they developed may represent an important advance in modeling autism spectrum disorders in mice and offer researchers a new tool for understanding how specific defects in neural development may lead to autism.

The genetically engineered mice, who have been shown to have “enhanced learning and memory skills” due to having a “mutant version of a gene called neuroligin-3″ are being studied at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Neuroligin-3 is involved in the functioning of synapses.

Elsewhere, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine, researchers are investigating drosphilia—the fruit fly—to study another protein, neurexin. The researchers deleted the gene for neurexin in the fruit flies and found that they had “trouble moving”; further investigation revealed that the flies were missing half of their synapses:

What was left were deformed, making it impossible for them to send out all the chemical signals that are necessary.

The next step in the research, which is already underway, is going to be to find out what proteins neurexin binds to as well as how they interact with each other and what the exact order of events is that result in the successful organization of the synapses within the nerve cells. They hope that eventually the research will lead to understanding the role of neurexin in functions like learning and memory and thereby finally understanding how defects in this one protein cause disorders such as autism.

As Mike Stanton noted in a post about these research studies,

Drosophila are an important part of the biological research toolkit. Their relatively simple genome and rapid reproductive cycle have made them a favourite of biologists researching the mechanics of evolution. But autistic fruit flies? Autism is a complex social disorder. Fruit flies are not complex social beings.

Mice, too, are not “complex social beings”; how one might diagnose a mouse with autism is not exactly clear. A non-verbal mouse is nothing too unusual. Genetically engineering animals to have some autistic traits (as per DSM critieria) can begin to tell us how some things about the interaction between genes and synaptic functioning in the brain. But autism (the human kind, at any rate) is much more than having certain learning and memory skills, or certain kinds of synaptics connections.

Is autism something particularly distinct to humans?

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  • gettingthere

    Curiouser and curiouser! First lion pride mothers, now autistic flies and mice. What’s the fly equivalent of flapping or mouse echolalia?

  • http://www.autismvox.com Kristina Chew, PhD

    How might the human ear learn to hear the difference between a squeak and a squeak?

  • http://autismnaturalvariation.blogspot.com Joseph

    I think it can be seen in one of two ways: (1) Animals are never autistic; or (2) All animals are autistic. They are contradictory, but they both are plausible views. The view that it’s possible to model autism (behavioraly) in animals, on the other hand, borders on the absurd in my opinion.

    There are animals that have behavior *reminiscent* of autism, however. Not just some of the member of the species, but all of them, or all in one gender:


  • http://joycemocha.livejournal.com joycemocha

    I’ve observed some horses that tend to be what I’d consider to be autistic. Behaviorally, they don’t understand horse body language; that can make them a real challenge to train. Some horses also really require predictability and structure in a manner similar to a person with autism.

    I’d say some animals do have autism–if you look at their social language abilities (primarily in the non-verbal, body language realm).

  • Chuck

    I have told my wife for years that all cats are autistic. The fact that you are there is completely irrelevant to them. :)

  • Amanda

    Although the fact that you are there is neither irrelevant to cats nor autistic people.

    I am still bemused by the fact that a reporter came into my house, I immediately turned directly away from her and stared out the window, and she wrote this up as my showing no reaction to her at all.

    If she hadn’t been there I wouldn’t have been afraid enough to turn away from her, nor had anyone to turn away from.

  • Sig

    Study a Finnish Spitz, a dog breed commonly known to be intelligent yet epileptic.
    Compare to human autism.
    What do you see?

  • http://compostermom.blogspot.com Daisy

    A non-verbal mouse? Sorry. this one made me laugh out loud. What a concept!

  • Dan

    When my hunny & I got married, I joked that one of my step-cats had “pawtism.” My two boys are on the spectrum; and, though, I do not theologically believe in karma, I can’t help but think about all my jokes about pautism, the short bus, etc….(Sigh). God, you’re not mad at me, are you? No? Good. Thanks! (BTW, I am being facetious…my little guys are Blessings # 2 & #3 in my life; right after my hunny – #1 and #2a – my daughter, and #2′s twin sister!)

  • Pingback: Can Animals Have Autism? (2)

  • Carol

    Certainly cats have autism. I have a savannah and within a month I told my husband, I though he was autistic. While some cats may not be autistic, hybrids such as my savannah which has approximately 12% wild serval in him is surely autistic. I would venture to stay that wild aminals could be classified as having autism while domestic may or may not. Not having autism is probably the unusual verses the norm.

  • tracey

    I think my dog may be autistic. That is how i found this sight, googling autism in animals. She does not bark, but makes a whining whimpering sound when she wants something. She has uncontrolled, jerking movements sometimes, awfully stubborn, repetitive actions, and sometimes just looks at you like “I don’t understand”. If anyone has any info on autistic animals or dogs specifically, it would be a help.

  • Tim

    I do believe it is possible for canines to be autistic. I teach several autistic young people in the music field and have observed the patterns. I also raise a “designer breed” of dogs known as Jugs- 1/2 Pug 1/2 Jack Russell. Though each one have their own distinctive personalities, one of my males does not like to socialize with the other five dogs, freaks out if you make eye contact, and goes into convulsive states if one picks him up to pamper or cuddle him. He is perfectly content though to lay at your side and does like to be petted, but as soon as eye contact is made, or an effort to get closer, he goes into his paranoid state. He also exhibits a set pattern of “almost ritualistic actions” when he is fed. He will spin himself and roll over three times, then run to his dish. Despite he is different, like his human counter parts, he is still a beautiful creatue and displays love in his own way.

  • http://www.autismvox.com Kristina Chew, PhD

    Fascinating—-a friend has a Jack Russell, very high strung so to speak (the dog that is).

  • http://drsavitz@hotmail.com donald savitz

    What I would to know what these mad reseachers feed or iject into the mice to get to get the results of that mouse to get Autism. IF you what it takes to give an animal Autism then wouldn”t you think it would be wise to keep these things away from babies either before birth of after. Was it the thimerosl after birth or did they feed the mother some before birth. SO LETS HEAR IT. IT is nice to hear what they can do and but it would be nice to how they are ging fix it!

  • Clare

    I know one of my cats is autistic, compared to my other cats. I had him from 3 weeks old, as a feral abandoned baby. He’s now over a year. He grew up biting my other cats as a way to play, but didn’t get a clue when the game was no longer fun (i.e. he outweighed them). He has made enemies of my older two cats. He has practically no meow, unless panicked, then it comes out weird and strained. He has a perpetually wild eyed look, and jumps up in my arms if I get upset, and starts purring until I calm down. His play with other cats seems very one-sided. He get easily irritated by being touched by anyone, even though he was raised as a bottle fed baby. He seems autistic only compared to my other cats. He’s definitely “different.” He’s my baby.

  • Sarah

    I too found this site because I have long suspected my cat to have ASD. He does not like to be held and will whine if you pick him up. I have never before heard a cat whine. He has definite repetitive behaviors. He does like to be petted but really more liked combed. He does not like you to look him in the eye or get to close to his head. His social behavior is improving as he gets older but he is still very introspective. He always looks worried and constantly studies things. It took him a really long time to learn his name. And he has an amazing memory. I worked with an autistic child from birth until 6 and I would never have thought about a pet having autism until this one cat.

  • http://None Mark Almond

    I strongley belive that it is not only possible but fact. I have a small bichon frese and have had him scince a pup. He is a lovley little dog and is very loving but displays alot of autistic characteristics, he has some very strange habbits (taking food from his bowl to another part of the house, that beeing the same chosen spot), dosnt learn when running a walking into stationary objects and seems not to feel any pain when doing so, like the garden gate (when you would have asumed that it would hurt him). He is also very highly strung, if someone outside makes the littlest nosie he will be up and barking for hours (similar to an autistic person when they freak out) and nothing will deter him. Although none of this is concrete evidence to prove he is an autistic dog I have grown up with dogs all my life and like a human that has autism he has a very differant personality to all other dogs, so differant that I am covinced. Please let me know your thoughts.

  • nicorahyany

    I have 3 cats all of whom I love dearly. However, my youngest cat, a 2 year old calico, is very socially inept. She does not like to be around people at all and will not look at you. I have to literally trap her in order to be able to hold her and give her affection – which she absolutely hates. My other cats are very well-adjusted and social. All 3 were rescues and I have had all of them since they were at least 3 months old. They grew up in the same environment and had the same amount of love and affection. As a special education teacher and after working with several students who are on the spectrum, I truly believe that my baby is autistic or at least exhibits autistic tendencies. My vet told us that she would outgrow her “fear” in time, but she has yet to do so and I really don’t think that she ever really will. After having several cats I am a firm believer that cats can have many of the same problems that people have – including autism and learning disabilities.

  • http://www.autismvox.com Kristina Chew, PhD


    we don’t have any pets and I do think a cat might be good though my son is fascinated somewhat by dogs when we see them on the street—–thank you—

  • Leta

    I was suspected that my son’s chihauhua was autistic but after reading some of the posts on this website, I am totally convinced! She will not come to any one in the family but my son, but if you sit on the sofa she will come and sit with you and wag her tail but as soon as you try to return pick her up she freaks and starts to try cry and jump out of your hands. She barks and growls at my husbands feet but is happy to go to him when he is laying on the bed. She will be walking and turn around in circles about five times. When someone lays down next to her she rubs her body against our heads over and over like a cat. She is ritulalistic about eating. She takes a piece of food and runs under the table or into another room where one of is at and eats it. sometimes she turning around in circles when she is on her way to get the food. She must burn all the calories she eats during her meals running back and forth! She always seems to be on the alert. looking back and forth from room to room. I have also worked with autistic adults and when I saw her behaviors I began to think she was autistic but had not heard anyone talk about autistic dogs until now. I have had several chihuahuas and other breeds but have never seen these types of behaviors. I am glad my son is so accepting of her behavior and loves her for her uniqueness.

  • http://www.autismvox.com Kristina Chew, PhD

    @Leta, fascinating—-sounds like she has the right home and family—-

  • http://autspect.fi/education/page.php?id=18 David N. Andrews M. Ed. (Distinction)

    “Is autism something particularly distinct to humans?”

    Strictly speaking, yes. For a number of reasons.

  • Rosemary

    Hi! I found this website and I feel I have “rescued” a tb chestnut filly that might be autistic. She is very quiet 90% of the time, but sometimes “leaves her body” She does not make eye contact and when I lead her through poles on the ground, she hits them over and over with her legs. I treated her for EPM and she did improve. However, she “sees” or “hears’ something that no other horse in the barn does and she will run right over top of me. I can halter her and soothe her and she will eventually calm. She overreacts to certain stimuli and under reacts to others. She is the strangest horse I hve handlied in my 45 years of being with horses.

    She is frustrating, but also challenging. I am at the point of sending her somewhere else because i do not know what to do with her. I am nervous about riding her because she seems ” not all there”.. Hmm… any suggestions?

    • kelli

      I realize it has been over a yr since this post but I am interested in more of stories or thoughts if you have any. I have a horse in training that I too believe is autistic. He reacts or in many cases over-reacts to certain things in the way an autistic person would. I have a nephew that is MILDLY autistic and I picked up on his “disorder” YEARS before his doctors or his mother for that matter. I suspected it when he was less than a year old so I am familiar with some of the characteristics. I am convinced that I have encountered many autistic horses in my 28 years of horses but never made the connection til just recently and thought possibly I was carrying too much over from my human experiences to my horse experiences. Any thoughts or experieces you could share would be appreciated.

  • Robyn

    I have 2 Yorkie-Poodle mix dogs (a boy and a girl). After reading a book where the child in it had Autism I started to to see similarities in my boy dog. Since he was a puppy he has had certain rituals he does daily, and he fixates on certain items. Some examples of his behavior: he eats his food one piece at a time doing circles in between, is terrified of loud noises and new people (we have to slowly introduce people into our house, we ask visitors not to talk to him until he is ready), when he gets anxious he starts chewing on his right arm, he has this one ball that he plays with nonstop, he will go to the bathroom on himself and forget to eat and drink when it is out. When he does calm down he will sit next to you on the couch but he has ticks and twitches. He is very loving to my husband only, he tolerates me (haha).He has more autistic like qualities just too long to explain. If anyone knows of any scientific articles on animals and autism I would love to read them and learn more information. I am just curious.

    • Dawna

      Thank God you posted Robyn.. I have taken in a Yorkie for the past three years.. plwase check my post at yahoo answers . com under pets and dogs and open questions about help with a yorkie with autism.. I DO have a yorkie that has ABSOULOUT Austic behaviors.. I have had several vets check her out.. they all “agree”… her behaviors ARE DEFINATLY Autistic in Nature. she has a very hard time “getting to know” strangers as well.. she is very sweet.. but, gets stressed easily and goes into seizures. she wants to be held and loved so badly.. and “after three years of working with her diligently” I CAN hold her quite often, but still occasionally, she will exibit the “cant be touched” or held behaviors that she came to me with. she pushes and pulls and rocks her head back and forth, and lays and stares at “what seems to be nothing” for long long periods of time.. she too has tic’s and twiches… and ohhh how her toys keep her “busy”… she packs toys constantly! filling the bed with over 25 to 40 each night.. “she must not sleep much at night”…. any time she gets nervous or stressed… she HAS TO GO GET A TOY! no stopping her. what I have learned from Doctors (My Neice is a pediatric sergeon, and from my “many” Fantastic Veterinarian friends.. is that “she DOES display every noteable sign of having “autism” or more like “Asbergers Syndrom” Autism. thats the “high functioning” end of autism. lets talk.. and see what we can learn togeather to be able to help our little furry children…. I am activly seeking information online and through my veterinarians for “any” thoughts, or medications, or natural holistic type of treatments that I can offer my tiny friend… she is precious… “disabled”…. like myself… but, completely PRECIOUS! I have to tell ya.. I BLAME THE BREEDER! I have found out that “that particular breeder” knowiingly bred this dog with NO CARE or CONCERN for the genetics.. thats wrong! but, this isnt about bad people and Im not going to let myself get started on that one… haha.. haaaa…. all I know is I have a tiny little soul living in my care that “needs” extra special attention and care.. and it has obviously been “given” to me by god to do the very best I can to seek out and find the answers she needs.. good luck to you… and I hope you can find the answers you are seeking.. and if you do… TELL THEM TO ME! and vice versa…. nity night…

  • Salome

    Well I always tell my mother the our year old cat Leo has autism because I think of his routines and behavior. Because he will like your hand and let you pet him then he goes and twitches and runs off like someone stepped on his tail. But I particulary think he has a playful behavior then it turns really crazy when he doesnt realize he has food or water when he’s in the bathroom where its placed and he’ll whine and meow all dayand tries to open his food pantry. but for me if there is a such Autism found in Animals I would be glad to know or inform his vet because I wanna know is there something to do to help him.

  • Sykora

    This is so wierd as I have been joking that my 4 year old cat Wallis is Autistic, we have 3 cats and he has cerebellar hypoplasia which means he walks with a wobble but he also displays ASD behaviour, he doesn’t like strangers,he doesn’t like physical interaction unless he is out in the garden or unless you are looking through the banisters on the stairs, he will have had a good fuss and then he next minute acts as if he doesn’t know you, he has obsessions about where he sits and for weeks will only sleep on a certain mat or chair..and then will pick a new one , he hates anything out of routine, we have 2 sofas and I always sit on one of them when I sat on the other he cried and cried looking at the empty sofa, he will only eat from the green bowl only when it is in front of the washing machine.

    • goombalina

      I work with autistic chilren and your cat is totally autistic.

  • Taylor

    my litle sister is autistic and im doing a project at school about it.

  • Tanya

    I have a horse i am currently training who i am convinced is autistic! Hi’s boddy language with other horses is all wrong, but most noticably he is a nice natured animal that is not afraid of most things but you can watch him and his eyes get a soft, doughy look about them and he is no longer “there” then the slightest thing will ‘wake him up’ and with no warning he explodes in a full blown temper tantrum. I have found you need to keep touching and talking to him when your handling him to keep his brain focused and he’s fine. Has anyone done any reserch on this?

  • Sonja Larsen

    I have been wondering about this for some time. There is a specific kind of thoroughbred (racetrack people call them “ratty” horses) that appears to display autism spectrum disorder. They are supersensitive to touch and sound, seem to lack the ability to recognize social cues from other horses and often weave, pace and crib. Such horses, though intelligent and often talented, seem to be unable to regain their composure once it is lost.

    It could be a useful thing to research, especially given that the pedigree of every single thoroughbred horse can be reliably traced back for four centuries. If it’s a genetic trait in horses, surely it can be pinpointed and possibly even predicted? Also, many horses with such traits are successfully trained for racing, showjumping, dressage, etc. Couldn’t those techniques be modified for people, too?

  • Suzanne

    My malti-poo dog exhibits a number of un-doglike behaviors, reminiscent of autism. She avoids people – if talked to or even looked at she will leave the room. When she is sitting on the couch, she will permit you to pet her, but she does not respond at all to it – doesn’t cock her head or lean in to your hand, as other pets do. She doesnt seem to recognize affection. I thought this was because she was rescued from a backyard breeder, til I met other dogs with similar histories, who do know & want affection & attention. She whines & runs away when asked “go for a walk?!” And the only thing that seems to motivate her is food. She will come when called ONLY when tempted with a morsel, which she will take from your hand, then quickly retreat. Does not socialize with other dogs. Just ignores them or avoids them.Have had her 3 years. Would love to hear suggestions that may help her become more sociable.

  • Elizabeth

    I agree. When I read reports that say, “Scientists have discovered a way to . . .”, I’d like to know how they did it, not just what they found out. Although, I guess it’s so others can’t copy the work and claim it for themselves. On the other hand, why even say they found out what they did without giving the nesesary information for others to prove them right or wrong? It irritates me!