A recent research from Ohio State University found a link between gifted children’s special abilities and autism, a developmental disability characterized by problems with communicating and socializing and a strong resistance to change. Their findings suggest that child prodigies might have a genetic mutation that allows them to possess the extreme talents seen in autistic savants, without the afferent deficits that come with autism.
The team of researchers, lead by Joanne Ruthsatz, lead author of the study and assistant professor of psychology at Ohio State University’sMansfield campus, studied eight child prodigies which were identified from the internet, television specials and by referral, and whose special skills ranged from math, to art, to music, to gourmet cooking.
The children were interviewed by the researchers over the course of two to three days, during which they completed the Stanford-Binet intelligence test, which included sub-tests on fluid reasoning, knowledge, quantitative reasoning, visual spatial abilities and working memory, as well as Autism-Spectrum Quotient assessment, which scores the level of autistic traits.
Of the eight prodigies studied, three had a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorders. In addition, half of the prodigies had a family member or a first- or second-degree relative with an autism diagnosis – a rather surprising find considering autism occurs only one in 120 people.
The results were then compared to a control group comprised of 174 adult participants, chosen at random via mail. Indeed the prodigies scored higher on autistic traits than the control group, but still on average or smaller, when compared with people suffering from an elevated form of autism, like Asperger’s syndrome, with one exception – extreme attention to detail.
“These prodigies had an absolutely amazing memory for detail,” Ruthsatz said. “They don’t miss anything, which certainly helps them achieve the successes they have.”
All child prodigies scored above 99% of the world at attention to detail
Ruthsatz said it was not the three prodigies who were diagnosed with autism who were driving this particular finding. 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. Concerning the IQ tests, all the prodigies scored in the gifted range, however the results weren’t spread out uniformly. 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.
Again, however, they all scored incredibly well in one sub-category of the test, concerning working memory, which judges people’s ability to hold multiple pieces of information in mind for a short time in order to complete a task. All of the child prodigies scoring above the 99th percentile.
“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.
Based on these findings, the researchers claim that child prodigies share many traits with autistic savants – people associated with incredible skills, yet who share developmental disabilities associated with autism – despite this however, child prodigies do not share the deficits commonly associated with autism.
“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.”
The researchers believe the child prodigies might have a moderate form of autism that actually enables their extraordinary talent, triggered by a genetic mutation. Future research will investigate this. If you’re curious, Business Insider has a pretty neat list of 16 famous child prodigies.
The study’s results were published in the journal Intelligence.
Tibi is a science journalist and co-founder of ZME Science. He writes mainly about emerging tech, physics, climate, and space. In his spare time, Tibi likes to make weird music on his computer and groom felines.