True prodigies are hard to find. Only one in every five to ten million people are labeled a prodigy. A diagnosis of autism, on the other hand, occurs once in every 88 people.
Dr. Joanne Ruthsatz is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at The Ohio State University and the author of The Prodigy’s Cousin: The Family Link Between Autism and Extraordinary Talent. She says her research shows a strong link between prodigies and autism.
Ruthsatz interviewed thirty prodigies and noticed over half of them had a close relative with autism, including several prodigies with multiple autistic family members. She also notes many of the characteristics of prodigies are shared with people with autism. Both are inclined to have an extraordinary recall and repetitive behaviors.
Ruthsatz says prodigies have a unique proclivity for a certain skill. These skills typically include math, music, art, and chess, the same four skills displayed in individuals with autism. This led Ruthsatz to investigate a genetic link between autism and prodigies. She found prodigies and their autistic relatives had a common genetic mutation. Ruthsatz hopes to identify the ‘moderator’ gene. A gene that allows prodigies to have the shared proclivity in one area without the deficits that autistic individuals experience in all other areas. This could ultimately result in a treatment or medicine that could mimic this moderator gene and potentially change the lives of people with autism.
Dr. Jennifer Gerdts, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Washington and an attending psychologist at the Seattle Children’s Autism Center, says further research needs to be done to back up Ruthsatz conclusions. Since prodigies are so rare, Gerdts says it would be extremely difficult to find a big enough sample size, which would require hundreds of prodigies.
Gerdts agrees that finding the link between autism and prodigies could potentially result in major scientific breakthroughs. Finding a specific mutation or absence of a gene that’s common to both groups could explain the similarities between the prodigies and their autistic relatives. In a best-case scenario, the discovery could result in the development of a medical treatment or cure for autism.
- Dr. Joanne Ruthsatz, Assistant Professor of Psychology, The Ohio State University and author, The Prodigy’s Cousin: The Family Link Between Autism and Extraordinary Talent
- Dr. Jennifer Gerdts, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, University of Washington and attending psychologist, Seattle Children’s Autism Center