Alan McStravick for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
Saul Aaron Kripke, the great American philosopher and logician, had a very succinct answer for Harvard University after they had offered him a teaching position. His response? “My mother said that I should finish high school and go to college first.”
Kripke is but one of many prodigies throughout history. Whether we consider Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Magnus Carlsen or Pablo Picasso, prodigies have delved into, and in many cases, broadened their particular field of interest. Were it not for George Frideric Handel´s precocious and persistent propensity toward music, his father would have ensured he studied Civil Law and the field of music, and by extension, all of humanity would have been denied one of the great performers and composers.
But what is it to be a prodigy? Typically, a prodigy is someone who, at an early age, develops one or more skills at a level that far exceeds the norm for their age. Typically, this term is reserved for someone under the age of 18 who performs at a level usually only seen in a highly trained adult in a very demanding field or endeavor.
While the moniker of Wunderkind has been bandied about as a synonym, most scientific literature seeks to discourage this term.
While child prodigies have been recognized throughout history, a new study has found a possible link between those we would deem prodigies and a relatively new mental health condition, autism. The study, out of the Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, did a comparative study of eight child prodigies.
Three of the eight subjects, it was found, had a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorders. Add to that the fact that the group, on the whole, tended to have slightly elevated scores on a test of autistic traits, when held in comparison to a control group.
But what was also very interesting to note was that half of the prodigies, it was found, had a family member or a first- or second-degree relative who had received an autism diagnosis.
Joanne Ruthsatz, lead author of the study and an assistant professor of psychology at Ohio State University´s Mansfield campus pointed out that the fact that half of the families and three of the prodigies themselves were affected by autism is surprising because autism occurs in only one of 120 individuals.
“The link between child prodigies and autism is strong in our study,” Ruthsatz said. “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.”
But what exactly is autism and how can traits of prodigious behavior be similar, but different? Autism is itself, a developmental disorder. Usually apparent in the first 3 years of life, it affects the brain´s normal development of social and communication skills.
What we do know is that autism is a physical condition that is linked to abnormal biology and chemistry in the brain. The causes for these abnormalities, despite current and very active research in the field, are, as yet, unknown.
It has been realized, however, that genetic factors seem to play an important role in the development of autism. As an example, identical twins, it has been found, are much more likely than fraternal twins or siblings to both have autism. Also, research has shown that autistic children will often have a relative who, themselves, suffer from a language abnormality. Chromosomal and neurological disorders have also been noted in families that have a member suffering from autism.
Autism usually presents itself as a communication and socialization disability along with as strong resistance to change. One form of autism, Asperger´s syndrome, shows its sufferers to have a more normal intelligence level than those who are diagnosed with typical autism, though they often struggle with the difficulties of social interaction.
The study showed that the prodigies, while they all had elevated general intelligence scores, really excelled in the area of working memory. Each of the prodigies scored above the 99th percentile on this trait, in particular.
They also scored higher than the control group and the Asperger´s group on one subsection of the autism assessments they underwent: attention to detail.
The eight subjects for the study were identified through the internet and television specials, as well as through direct referral. Comprised of one art prodigy, one math prodigy, four musical prodigies and two individuals who switched domains (one from music to gourmet cooking, and one from music to art), each of the subjects underwent rigorous testing and interviewing. The study included six males and two females.
Each child prodigy was studied by the researchers over a period of two to three days. One marker that was used was the Stanford-Binet intelligence test. This model includes sub-tests that gauge fluid reasoning, knowledge, quantitative reasoning, visual spatial abilities and working memory.
Additionally, the subjects were administered the Autism-Spectrum Quotient assessment, which aims to score the levels of autistic traits. As a control, the researchers used the scores of 174 randomly selected adults to compare to.
Ruthsatz said the most striking data was that which identified autistic traits among the prodigies.
The subjects were shown to have a general elevation in autistic traits, as compared to the control group. However, the researchers found this elevation was, on average, smaller than what is typically found in high-functioning autistics who have been diagnosed with Asperger´s syndrome.
“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.”
Despite the fact that three of the eight subjects had already received an autism diagnosis, Ruthsatz confirmed that they were not the driving factor behind this recognized prevalence of autism in the group. In fact, the three autistic prodigies scored an average of 8 on attention to detail, as compared to 8.5 for the group, as a whole.
The researchers also determined that while the prodigies scored in the gifted range, they were not all uniformly exceptional. Five of the eight subjects scored in the 90th percentile or above on the IQ test. However, one scored in the 70th percentile. Another scored in the 79th percentile.
However, just as in the autism assessment, each of the subjects stood out on one of the sub-tests of the overall IQ test. Each of them presented an exceptional working memory. In fact, all subjects scored above the 99th percentile in this regard.
What we know about the working memory is that it is the system in the brain that allows individuals to hold multiple pieces of information in the mind for a short period of time in order to complete a task.
According to Ruthsatz, what we are learning is that these findings are painting a picture of what it takes to create a prodigy.
“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 researchers say that these results suggest a strong connection between prodigies and autistic savants. Autistic savants, however, typically have a strong developmental disability associated with autism that is combined with an extraordinary talent or knowledge that far exceeds what is considered 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.”
The answer may be 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 more study, Ruthsatz said.
“Our findings suggest that prodigies may have some moderated form of autism that actually enables their extraordinary talent.”