What child prodigies and autistic people have in common

Time.com

Child prodigies evoke awe, wonder and sometimes jealousy: how can such young children display the kinds of musical or mathematical talents that most adults will never master, even with years of dedicated practice? Lucky for these despairing types, the prevailing wisdom suggests that such comparisons are unfair — prodigies are born, not made (mostly). Practice alone isn't going to turn out the next 6-year-old Mozart.

So finds a recent study of eight young prodigies, which sought to shed some light on the innate roots of their talent. The prodigies included in the study  [PDF] are all famous (but remain unidentified in the paper), having achieved acclaim and professional status in their fields by the ripe age of 10. Most are musical prodigies; one is an artist and another a math whiz, who developed a new discipline in mathematics and, by age 13, had had a paper accepted for publication in a mathematics journal. Two of the youngsters showed extraordinary skill in two separate fields: one child in music and art (his work now hangs in prestigious galleries the world over), and the other in music and molecular gastronomy (the science behind food preparation — why mayonnaise becomes firm or why a soufflé swells, for example). He became interested in food at age 10 and, by 11, had carried out his first catering event.

All of the prodigies had stories of remarkable early abilities: one infant began speaking at 3 months old and was reading by age 1; two others were reading at age 2. The gastronomist was programming computers at 3. Several children could reproduce complex pieces of music after hearing them just once, at the age most kids are finishing preschool. Many had toured internationally or played Lincoln Center or Carnegie Hall well before age 10.

Six of the prodigies were still children at the time of the study, which is slated for publication in the journal Intelligence. The other two participants were grown, aged 19 and 32.

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The study found a few key characteristics these youngsters had in common. For one, they all had exceptional working memories — the system that holds information active in the mind, keeping it available for further processing. The capacity of working memory is limited: for numbers, for example, most people can hold seven digits at a time on average; hence, the seven-digit phone number. But prodigies can hold much more, and not only can they remember extraordinarily large numbers, but they can also manipulate them and carry out calculations that you or I might have trouble managing with pencil and paper.

Working memory isn't just the ability to remember long strings of numbers. It is the ability to hold and process quantities of information, both verbal and non-verbal — such as, say, memorizing a musical score and rewriting it in your head. All the children in the study scored off the charts when tested on measures of working memory: they placed in at least the 99th percentile, with most in the 99.9th percentile.

Surprisingly, however, the study found that not all of the prodigies had high IQs. Indeed, while they had higher-than-average intelligence, some didn't have IQs that were as elevated as their performance and early achievements would suggest. One child had an IQ of just 108, at the high end of normal.

There was something else striking too. The authors found that prodigies scored high in autistic traits, most notably in their ferocious attention to detail. They scored even higher on this trait than did people diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism that typically includes obsession with details.

Three of the eight prodigies had a diagnosed autism spectrum disorder themselves. The child who had spoken his first words at 3 months, stopped speaking altogether at 18 months, then started again when he was just over two-and-a-half years old; he was diagnosed with autism at 3. What's more, four of the eight families included in the study reported autism diagnoses in first- or second-degree relatives, and three of these families reported a total of 11 close relatives with autism. In the general population, by contrast, about 1 in 88 people have either autism or Asperger’s.

Other unusual parallels between prodigies and those with autism: they're both more likely to be male (though that finding may be due in part to the failure to recognize either girls on the autism spectrum or, perhaps, girls' hidden talents) and both are associated with difficult pregnancies, suggesting that uterine environment may play a role in their development. In the math whiz's case, for example, his mother "started labor nine times between the 29th and 37th weeks of her pregnancy and required medication to stop the labor. During the 35th week of her pregnancy, her water broke and she had a 105-degree fever from an infection in her uterus. The child prodigy did not have a soft spot at delivery," the authors write.

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When Asperger’s was first described in 1944 by Austrian pediatrician Hans Asperger, he referred to children with the syndrome as “little professors” because of their prodigious vocabularies and precocious expertise, and because they tended to lecture others endlessly without being aware of their own tediousness. Poor social skills and obsessive interests characterize the condition.

Yet, despite the obvious similarities, very little research has been done on the connection between autism and extreme talent. One previous study, published in 2007, did find that close relatives of prodigies — like close relatives of people with autism — tended to score higher on autistic traits, particularly in problems with social skills, difficulty switching attention and intense attention to detail. Other than that, however, the issue hasn't been studied systematically, beyond the observation that autism is often seen in savants, or people with exceptional abilities who have other simultaneous impairments.

Prodigies, in contrast, appear to benefit from certain autistic tendencies while avoiding the shortfalls of others. On a standard assessment of traits associated with autism, the prodigies in the current study scored higher than a control group on all measures, including attention to detail and problems with social skills or communication (though this result was not statistically significant, probably because the sample was so small). But they also scored significantly lower than a separate comparison group of people who had Asperger's — except on the attention-to-detail measure, in which they outshone everyone.

“One possible explanation for the child prodigies’ lack of deficits is that, while the child prodigies may have a form of autism, a biological modifier suppresses many of the typical signs of autism, but leaves attention to detail — a quality that actually enhances their prodigiousness — undiminished or even enhanced,” the authors write.

In other words, these children may have some genetic trait or learned skill that allows them to maintain intense focus, without compromising their social skills or suffering from other disabilities that typically accompany autism spectrum disorders. Comparing these children with those who have full-blown autism or Asperger's could therefore potentially help pinpoint what goes wrong in those who develop disabling forms of autism and what goes right in others with similar traits who simply benefit from enhanced abilities.

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The current study doesn't tread that ground, but its findings do fit in with the intense world theory of autism, which posits how the disorder may arise. The theory holds that certain patterns of brain circuitry cause autistic symptoms, including excessive connectivity in local brain regions, which can heighten attention and perception, and diminished wiring between distant regions, which can lead to a sort of system overload. In both animal and human studies, this type of brain wiring has been associated with enhanced memory and also with amplified fear and sensory overstimulation. The former is a good thing; the latter may cause disability.

The intense world theory propounds that all autism carries the potential for exceptional talent and social deficits. The social problems, the theory suggests, may ensue from the autistic person's dysfunctional attempts — social withdrawal and repetitive behaviors, for instance — to deal with his heightened senses and memory.

It's possible, then, that the wiring in prodigies' brains resembles that of an autistic person's, with tight local connections, except without the reduction in long-distance links. Or, their brains may function just like those with autism, but their high intelligence allows them to develop socially acceptable ways of coping with the sensory overload.

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Although some researchers — and much of the public, influenced by popular books like journalist Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers — argue that prodigious expertise can be acquired with sheer effort, 10,000 hours of practice to be exact, the current findings suggest that natural talents can blossom in far less time. “[Many prodigies] displayed their extreme talent before reaching 10 years of age, undercutting the nurture-based theories that credit contemporary training techniques and upwards of 10 years of deliberate practice as the root of all exceptional achievement,” the authors write.

That doesn't mean all is lost for the rest of us, notes Scott Barry Kaufman, a cognitive psychologist at New York University. “There is research showing the positive benefits of working memory training,” he wrote on his blog on Psychology Today's website, suggesting that practice could take us closer to perfect.

The current study is a small one, and much more research needs to be done to elucidate the connections between highly gifted children and those with autism spectrum conditions. But the findings strongly suggest that such connections exist. They also caution against characterizing the genetic roots of conditions like autism — or other potentially disabling problems like mood disorders, which have been linked with exceptional creativity — as wholly negative. If the same "risk" genes may lead to both debilitating autism and great intellectual gifts, we need to understand them far better before we label them as unwanted.

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Maia Szalavitz is a health writer at TIME.com. Find her on Twitter at @maiasz. You can also continue the discussion on TIME Healthland’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIMEHealthland.