Newspaper article International New York Times

Prodigies and Autism

Newspaper article International New York Times

Prodigies and Autism

Article excerpt

Passionate interests, extreme working memories and family ties are among the intriguing connections.

Many parents remember a moment when their toddler astounded them. Maybe he outpaced his playgroup at mastering a song. Maybe she knew an esoteric fact about outer space. They might quietly wonder: Is my child a prodigy?

Probably not. A prodigy is defined as a preadolescent child who performs at an adult professional level in a demanding field. True prodigies are rare. For every Joey Alexander lighting up the Grammys there are thousands of talented but not prodigious child musicians.

We've known about child prodigies for a long time. In the 1700s, a young Mozart was composing symphonies and dazzling audiences. Academic investigations of prodigies go back at least 90 years.But we still don't know what makes for a true prodigy. There's no blood test or genetics screen. Nor do we know how they do it. How does an 8-year-old ace college courses? How can an 18-month-old recite the alphabet backward? Whether a child is "officially" a prodigy has little impact on her life. Parents don't typically seek treatment for a child because she is achieving too much.

But what if understanding prodigies would help us understand a seemingly unrelated condition, like autism?

No link has yet been proved between autism and prodigy. Prodigies aren't typically autistic (unlike savants, in whom extraordinary abilities and autism often coincide), and they don't have the social or communication challenges that characterize autism. But some aspects of prodigy and autism do overlap.

Prodigies, like many autistic people, have a nearly insatiable passion for their area of interest. Lauren Voiers, an art prodigy from the Cleveland area, painted well into the night as a teenager; sometimes she didn't sleep at all before school began. That sounds a lot like the "highly restricted, fixated interests" that are part of autism's diagnostic criteria.

Prodigies also have exceptional working memories. In a 2012 study led by one of us, Dr. Ruthsatz, all eight of the prodigies examined scored in the 99th percentile in this area. As the child physicist Jacob Barnett once put it, "Every number or math problem I ever hear, I have permanently remembered." Extreme memory has long been linked to autism as well. Dr. Leo Kanner, one of the scientists credited with identifying autism in the 1940s, noted that the autistic children he saw could recite "an inordinate number of nursery rhymes, prayers, lists of animals, the roster of presidents, the alphabet forward and backward." A study on talent and autism published in 2015 in The Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders found that over half of the more than 200 autistic subjects had unusually good memories.

Finally, both prodigies and autistic people have excellent eyes for detail. Simon Baron-Cohen, an autism researcher, and his colleagues have described an excellent eye for detail as "a universal feature of the autistic brain." It's one of the categories on the Autism-Spectrum Quotient, a test Dr. Baron-Cohen helped develop that measures autistic traits. The prodigies in Dr. Ruthsatz's 2012 study got high marks in this trait on the test. One of the subjects, Jonathan Russell, a 20-year-old music prodigy who lives in New York, described how startled he gets when the chimes on the subway are slightly off key. …

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