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Keywords:

  • Autism spectrum disorders;
  • autistic traits;
  • special abilities;
  • savant skills

Background:  The raised incidence of special abilities or ‘savant skills’ among individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) relative to other developmental disorders suggests an association between the traits characteristic of ASD and special abilities. The purpose of this study was to investigate the association between special abilities and ASD-like traits.

Methods:  This study compared the scores of 6,426 8-year-olds with and without parent-reported special abilities on a screening questionnaire for ASD-like traits in three areas: social interaction, communication, and restricted and repetitive behaviours and interests. Measures of IQ, sex, and socioeconomic status (SES) were also compared.

Results:  From parent report, children with special abilities showed significantly more ASD-like traits than those without such abilities. General intelligence did not mediate this relationship: IQ was found to be positively associated with ability, but negatively associated with ASD-like traits. Special abilities were more strongly associated with restricted/repetitive characteristics than with social or communication traits.

Conclusions:  Results support the association between special abilities and ASD-like traits, and expand it to traits in the general population. The type of nonsocial traits most strongly associated with parental reports of special abilities suggests a link to a featural information processing style, or ‘weak central coherence’.