Why you should care
A psychologist looks for a link between autism and child geniuses in families.
Ohio State University psychologist Joanne Ruthsatz, author of The Prodigy’s Cousin, once tested a child prodigy’s IQ. In the middle of her assessment, the child asked for a break at McDonald’s. As they were eating, the child genius’s autistic cousin walked in, and the coincidence made Ruthsatz wonder: What are the chances of having a child prodigy and an autistic child in the same family?
The question motivated her to find some answers. So she went on to study prodigies who reached a professional level before age 10. After examining their DNA, and those of their families, she discovered that half of prodigies had an autistic relative as close as a grandparent or niece. She also found that both the prodigies and their autistic relatives seemed to have evidence of a genetic mutation or mutations on the short arm of chromosome 1 that was not shared by their neurotypical relatives. The two also shared some characteristics.
I think we’re seeing an evolution of extreme talent.
We caught up with Ruthsatz to talk about how her findings might help answer questions about autism. Our condensed and edited conversation follows.
How might the link between prodigy and autism help us better understand both traits?
Ruthsatz: Well, if we could find how they are different from their neurotypical relatives, that would lead the way to better medicine for autism. What we’re looking for is a genetic marker that prodigies have that their neurotypical or autistic relatives do not have. More than 50 percent of children who are prodigies have autistic first or second relatives. That’s way too much. It’s a big marker, a big flag. Now we’re working to find out where the difference is, since we know where the similarity is.
What strengths did you find among prodigies who excel in math and science?
This group had huge visual-spatial skills. They were able to see visually and report the difference, telling exactly how to get from point A to point B and, miraculously, whether it was northeast, left, right or so on. I didn’t cue them; they just knew. But artistic prodigies were below average on this skill. Some of the artistic prodigies couldn’t have told me left from right.
What did the music geniuses excel in?
The music prodigies had the strongest memories. In fact, all music geniuses had a score above 99 percent on working memory. They had significantly better working memories than the other types of prodigies.
When you compared prodigies and those with autism, what similarities did you find?
They all have an obsession in something, or what we’d call a “rage to master” in prodigies. They both have strong working memories. They all usually come from families that have engineers or scientists or professors. Well, not all of them, but more than you’d expect. Some come from very normal families, some working-class — and many have autistic relatives.
You uncovered evidence that prodigies have a very extreme sense of empathy. Can you explain?
One of the prodigies started a charity that raised $8 million for children with neuro diseases. He was so in tune with these patients that he used to play little concerts for them in the hospital, and his efforts got bigger and bigger. He raised a lot of money for research. Another one focused on feeding starving children. They are very sensitive to the human condition. Now, with autistic individuals, there’s this misunderstanding that they don’t care, but I think they care so much that they don’t know what to do with it — they’re super sensitive.
What do you find most interesting about child geniuses?
They are just so extremely rare, and we’re almost seeing an evolution in genetic research that shows that as the world goes on, the gene pool changes. You can go back to Mozart, and he certainly had an autistic background, but we’re finding that more and more. I think we’re seeing an evolution of extreme talent.
What do you suspect your latest research might lead to?
We are hoping to arrive at the prodigy gene that allows all the deficits in autism to be put at bay, letting the talent shine through. We think it’s going to be one or two genes. We don’t think they will be massive genes that are different. We think it’s going to be a moderator that lets prodigies be social and live their lives functionally where autistic savants cannot … and finding that difference might lead to better medicine for people with autism.