Most studies of autism link it to genetics. The condition is often referred to as the "geek syndrome" because some studies have shown a high incidence of autism in areas like California's Silicon Valley, where highly technical people are having children together. Scientific studies have backed up the idea that autism is genetic, identifying several genes that seem implicated in the disorder. Now a new study has revealed that many of the genes associated with autism are — luckily — ones whose functioning can be modified in early childhood. Autism genes are associated with early learning and are essentially designed to be reprogrammed — so, given the right learning environment, children born with autism could rewire their brains and be spared the worst effects of this disorder.

A co-author of the study, Christopher Walsh, told Scientific American:

We're showing, on the one hand, that autism seems to have a large genetic component. But, the genes that are involved are actually those that are involved in responding to the environment and learning.

Often, autistic children have problems with the genes that help them learn by forming synapses between neurons in the brain. Either the genes are deleted or dormant.

The Scientific American article continues:

Walsh says the team believes these deletions-which in most cases found here only remove some, but not all, of the DNA that makes up a gene-may mean that the genes can regain some of their normal function. In fact, some of these genes may just be switched off. "This presents the possibility that in some kids we could get the gene going again without necessarily having to put it back in the brain," he says . . . Walsh notes that many children diagnosed with autism tend to show vast improvement when they are placed in environments that allow them to practice learning repetitively. He says that these activities essentially train the neurons to make up for their lost function. "Our work reinforces the importance of early intervention and behavioral therapy," he says. "The more we understand about genetics the more we understand how important the environment is."

This is one of the first studies to offer genetic evidence for the idea that children with autism can actually reformat their brains if placed in the right environment. There has been anecdotal evidence that autistic people can benefit from specialized learning environments, but it was never clear what the genetic basis for these recoveries might be.

Autism Genes that Control Early Learning [via Scientific American]