Young Bonobo Shows Signs of Autism

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Teco isn't acting like others his age.

Constantly on the move, performing repetitious behaviors and avoiding eye contact, he puzzled his mother, who didn't know how to handle him at first.

Surely, this isn't normal behavior for a 1-year-old bonobo, who should be learning the ins and outs of his ape social group.

Speculating the roots of Teco's change, his caregivers at Great Ape Trust put forth a surprising theory: What if Teco is autistic?

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Such a finding may come as a surprise to the primatology community, which is familiar with the stunning intelligence of Teco's dad, Kanzi. From observing so far, experts think Teco's autistic-like behaviors add to a growing list of similarities between humans and their recent primate ancestors. If the young bonobo has indeed developed a neurological condition akin to autism, then researchers might learn more about the disorder's roots and how it affects other species.

But the claim raises a larger question: Are mental health disorders unique to humans, or are we too ill-equipped to understand the complexity of the nonhuman animal psyche?

It's tough to say, since we can't extrapolate human behavior onto another species. What's worth noting, however, is primate-behavior experts' ability to discern Teco's actions and label them abnormal for his species.

After looking at a previous video demonstrating Teco's strong connection with a human caregiver, I was surprised to learn about changes in this youngster. In the first video, Teco didn't appear to have problems with social issues, such as maintaining eye contact. Yet, between September 2010 and now, something in Teco's development seems to have veered off course.

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Could the primate's unnatural rearing or early interaction with humans be affecting his developmental trajectory? It's not clear and likely won't be for some time.

Autism spectrum disorders, limited to humans so far, affect nearly one in every 110 children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Because of the complexity of the condition, it's difficult to know for sure if Teco's behaviors were shaped by the same factors as children who live with signs of autism.

Below are two videos of Teco. The first was taken when he was a few months old, while the second documents his first birthday. Though his family and human caregivers know the ape's behavior the best, it's interesting as an outsider to view how he's changed over the past year.

Do you notice any differences in the young ape?

Photo and videos courtesy of Great Ape Trust.