A few days ago on reddit, user bobitis explained that an 11-year-old walked into his daughter's college lecture and drew this map on the whiteboard…entirely from memory. The incredibly detailed diagram doesn't just show the overall shape of the continents in mind-blowing detail, it also shows the political divides of modern countries and includes those little frozen islands up in the Arctic Circle that are shrinking as you read this.
The images have since gone viral, and highlight the fact that, while autism can limit some children's social skills, it can also greatly enhance other strengths, including visual memory skills and the ability to learn by rote.
So why does autism bring out these incredible skills in some people? Research has suggested it may be due to changes in activity in the amygdala and hippocampus, but despite decades of studying the condition, we're still a long way from understanding how it works on a neurological level.
Recent preliminary studies suggest that a memory-limiting protein known as Fragile X-Related Protein 1 (FXR1P) may also be involved in autism. Usually FXR1P puts the brakes on memory formation to make sure that we remember the important things, but not so much that it overwhelms our brains. However, sometimes this protein can malfunction, and when that happens, it seems to be linked to conditions such as autism, where individuals can have higher than normal brain activity, and Alzheimer's, where memory function breaks down.
Scientists are now conducting a genetic study of more than 10,000 families affected by autism to try to work out more about the underlying causes of the condition, and how these lead to changes in behaviour, learning and memory abilities. The more we find out about how our brains work, the closer we get to unlocking amazing map-drawing skills in all of us. Bring it on.