A study of eight child prodigies suggests a significant link between their special abilities and autism.
“The link between child prodigies and autism is strong in our study,” said Joanne Ruthsatz, Ph.D., lead author of the study and assistant professor of psychology at Ohio State University.
“Our findings suggest child prodigies have traits in common with autistic children, but something is preventing them from displaying the deficits we associate with the disorder.”
Of the eight prodigies who took part in the study, three had a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder. As a whole, the prodigies also tended to have slightly higher scores on a test of autistic traits, when compared to a control group.
Furthermore, half of the prodigies had a family member or a first- or second-degree relative with autism.
Ruthsatz said it is surprising that half of the families and three of the prodigies themselves were affected by autism since autism occurs in only one of 120 individuals.
Researchers also found that while child prodigies had higher general intelligence scores, where they really excelled was in working memory—they all scored above the 99th percentile on this trait.
The study was conducted by Ruthsatz with Jourdan Urbach of Yale University. Their results were published in a recent issue of the journal Intelligence.
The researchers identified eight child prodigies (six males and two females) through the Internet and television specials and by referral. This included one art prodigy, one math prodigy, four musical prodigies and two who switched domains (one from music to gourmet cooking, and one from music to art).
Over the course of two or three days, the researchers met with each prodigy individually. During that time, the prodigies were given the Stanford-Binet intelligence test, which included sub-tests on fluid reasoning, knowledge, quantitative reasoning, visual spatial abilities and working memory.
The researchers also administered the Autism-Spectrum Quotient assessment, which measures the level of autistic traits. The prodigies’ scores on this test were compared to a control group of 174 adults who were contacted randomly by mail.
The most striking data was that which identified autistic traits among the prodigies, said Ruthsatz. There was a general elevation in autistic traits among the prodigies compared to the control group, but this elevation was on average even smaller than that seen in high-functioning autistic people diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome.
In the autism assessment, the prodigies did score higher than the control group and the Asperger’s group in one particular category: attention to detail.
“These prodigies had an absolutely amazing memory for detail,” she said. “They don’t miss anything, which certainly helps them achieve the successes they have.”
According to Ruthsatz, it was not the three prodigies with autism who ranked the highest in this category. In fact, the three autistic prodigies scored an average of 8 on attention to detail, compared to 8.5 for the entire group of prodigies.
On the intelligence test, the prodigies scored in the gifted range, but were not uniformly exceptional. Although five of the eight prodigies scored in the 90th percentile or above on the IQ test, one scored at the 70th percentile and another at the 79th percentile.
The prodigies showed an exceptional working memory, with all of them scoring above the 99th percentile. Working memory allows people to keep multiple pieces of information in mind for a short time in order to complete a task.
The findings paint a picture of what it takes to create a prodigy, Ruthsatz said.
“Overall, what we found is that prodigies have an elevated general intelligence and exceptional working memory, along with an elevated autism score, with exceptional attention to detail,” Ruthsatz said.
The study suggests that prodigies share some striking similarities with autistic savants—individuals who have the developmental disabilities found in autism but with an extraordinary talent or knowledge that is far beyond average.
“But while autistic savants display many of the deficits commonly associated with autism, the child prodigies do not,” Ruthsatz said. “The question is why.”
Perhaps there is some genetic mutation that allows prodigies to have the extreme talent found in savants, but without the deficits seen in autism. But the answer will require further research, Ruthsatz said.
“Our findings suggest that prodigies may have some moderated form of autism that actually enables their extraordinary talent.”
Source: Ohio State University