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 incredibly 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 prodigy 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? This might not seem like a big deal. 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 during an interview on “60 Minutes,” “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 self-administered 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.
Beyond the cognitive similarities, many child prodigies have autistic relatives. In the 2012 study, half of the prodigies had an autistic relative at least as close as a niece or grandparent. Three had received a diagnosis of autism themselves when young, which they seemed to have since grown out of.
There might even be evidence of a genetic link between the conditions. In a 2015 study published in Human Heredity, Dr. Ruthsatz and her colleagues examined the DNA of prodigies and their families. They found that the prodigies and their autistic relatives both seemed to have a genetic mutation or mutations on the short arm of Chromosome 1 that were not shared by their neurotypical relatives. Despite a small sample size (the finding rested on five extended prodigy families), the data was statistically significant.
Perhaps prodigies have a very specific and unusual form of autism: They have many of the strengths associated with the condition, but few of the difficulties.
This makes prodigies potentially important not just for talent research but also for autism research.
Autism is, of course, notoriously heterogeneous, and an autism diagnosis doesn’t necessarily signify any single underlying biological anomaly. Even autistic siblings often have different genetic risk factors for autism. Some researchers have thus taken to referring to autism not in the singular, but in the plural, as “the autisms.”
We don’t want to give false hope. The potential connection between autism and prodigy does not mean that people with autism are actually all geniuses. Rather, the prodigies may be people who were at risk of having this condition, yet don’t.
Scientists have revolutionized several areas of medicine by identifying “resilience genes” — mutations that protect against specific diseases. Researchers studying H.I.V., heart disease and Type 2 diabetes have turned conventional methodology on its head: Instead of focusing solely on those who have a particular disease, they have investigated high-risk individuals who remained healthy.
In theory, a similar approach could work in the study of prodigy and autism. Prodigies could act as the “high risk” but unaffected group that could advance our understanding of autism. It does not mean we could develop a treatment or cure, but it could offer major insights.
Scientists are making some progress in untangling the underlying biology of brain disorders. The National Institute of Mental Health, for example, has started the Research Domain Criteria initiative, an effort that ignores the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders categories. It instead focuses on integrating data from genetics, cognitive science, behavioral studies and other sources to build a new research framework for brain disorders. As Sarah Morris, the acting director of the project, said, “Ultimately the goal is that with better diagnosis you can get better treatment.”
Pinning down whether the child rattling off outer space trivia is a little advanced for her age or an actual prodigy may be about more than bragging rights. It could help us tackle part of the mystery of autism.