The Surprising Link Between Child Prodigies And Autism

The two conditions share a genetic link that could one day inform better treatments for autism, one scientist says.

15/03/2016 6:18 AM AEDT | Updated 15/03/2016 6:18 AM AEDT
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Child prodigies are significantly more likely than others to have relatives with autism. 

From a 17-year-old math whiz with two college degrees to a 12-year-old jazz pianist nominated for a Grammy Award, how does a child come to develop the skills and expertise of an extraordinarily talented adult before they even hit adolescence? 

Child prodigies like these are something of a mystery, even to the scientists who study them. New research has revealed another fascinating perplexity of child prodigies: their extremely high likelihood of having relatives with autism. Dr. Joanne Ruthsatz, an Ohio State University psychologist who specializes in prodigies, found that exceptionally gifted children were significantly more likely than others to have one or more individuals with autism in their extended family. 

In a provocative new book, The Prodigy's Cousin: The Family Link Between Autism and Extraordinary Talent, Ruthsatz and her daughter, journalist Kimberly Stephens, suggest that unraveling the genetic links between child prodigies and individuals with autism might pave the way for new treatments for the disorder. 

HuffPost Science recently caught up with Ruthsatz to learn more about the link between prodigies and autism, the possibility of a pharmaceutical treatment for autism spectrum disorders, and the ways we can draw out the talents of both child prodigies and children with autism. 

How did you first start exploring this relationship between autism and prodigies? 

I wanted to study exceptional performers ... While I was doing that, my husband brought home a popular magazine with a child prodigy on the cover, and said, "If you're interested in exceptional performers, how about this kid on the cover?" I thought that would be fascinating because he should have a super IQ and his domain-specific skills should be off the charts.

So I called his parents and about six months later I was down in the South, testing him. He had a gifted IQ but it wasn't off the charts like I expected. What was off the charts was his exceptional memory and his musical skills. While we were testing he got tired and said he didn't want to do it anymore, he wanted to go to McDonald's. And while we were sitting there eating, just by chance, his cousin, who was severely autistic, walked in.

I thought, what are the chances of having a child prodigy -- which is maybe 1 in 5 million children -- and a first cousin with autism? On the way home, I began to think of ways to investigate that. 

How do you define a prodigy, and what do we know about the factors that may give rise to both extraordinary talent and autism? 

A prodigy is someone who reaches a professional level of expertise before they reach the age of adolescence. One in 5 million is just about where they fit. We ran some DNA on the child prodigies and their autistic relatives, and over half of the families of prodigies have an individual or multiple individuals with autism. We found a mutation on chromosome 1 on the short arm that predisposed the individuals to either be a child prodigy or to have autism. 

That's fascinating. Can you explain this genetic link further? 

Well, the study is still running. All I can tell you at this point is that they share this mutation. If we just put in prodigies, the presence of the mutation didn't become significant, and if we just put in the autistic relatives, it didn't become significant. But when we looked at both of them, the mutation showed up at a .007 significance level, which is unbelievable. 

What are you hoping to uncover as you continue investigating this link? 

I believe that the prodigies are holding a moderator gene, or a resilience gene, holding back the challenges of autism and only allowing the talent which is sometimes associated with autism to shine through. So if we find the moderator gene, we'll definitely know more about autism. 

Here's an example of how that works: In HIV, when they began investigating high-risk individuals in the 1980s, there was always a pocket in every study who never contracted HIV but should have. When two of those people volunteered for another study on people resistant to HIV, they found a lesion on chromosome 3 that didn't allow for receptor sites to form on T cells [immune cells that are killed by the virus], so there was no entry point for the HIV. It was literally washing right through them. 

They've also found this in Type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis and heart disease. So there's been a switch and instead of looking at individuals who are affected, we're looking at individuals who should be affected but aren't.  

What are some of the behavioral traits that child prodigies and children with autism share? 

It's so funny because when we talk about these traits in autism, we talk about them as deficits. But for child prodigies, they're strengths. It's attention to detail, extraordinary memories, an over-representation of autism in their families, and a "rage to master" -- they become intensely involved in whatever particular domain they're in. 

When we talk about these traits in autism, we talk about them as deficits. But for child prodigies, they're strengths." - Dr. Joanne Ruthsatz

Is one of your hopes that drawing attention to these potentially positive qualities might change the way people look at autism? 

That's one of the hopes, but the big hope is that we'll find the moderator gene. That research is going on right now with McGill University. They're running the vials and the analysis should be coming out within a couple months. 

We're really looking for a medical intervention. There are no prescription drugs just for autism. 

Does this area of research suggest any ways of drawing out the creative talents of people with autism? 

Absolutely, that's one of the things we're hoping for. Temple Grandin and Kristine Barnett both wrote books focusing on the strengths of people with autism rather than taking an approach of trying to get them to do things that they don't want to do. 

This research is very exciting but early. What are some of the big questions in your mind to be addressed in the future? 

Well, it's just really a hairsplitting sort of detail. We have one highly prolific prodigy who has a highly autistic brother. So where does the hair split? What's the difference there? Why did one turn out to be a prodigy and the other to have severe autism? There are several cases like that. We want to know, genetically speaking, what the difference is. What went wrong for one and right for another? 

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

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