Special skills displayed by child prodigies have been associated with the unique skill sets of children with autism, suggests a new study whose findings were published in Intelligence.

Joanne Ruthsatz, lead author of the study and assistant professor of psychology at Ohio State University’s Mansfield campus, and her colleague Jourdan Urbach of Yale University conducted a study using eight child prodigies found through television specials, internet, or referrals.

The group consisted of one math prodigy, one art prodigy, four musical prodigies, and two who switched subjects (one from music to cooking and the other from music to art). The children consisted of six males and two females.

Individual meetings were held with each prodigy where the participants completed the Stanford-Binet Intelligence test, a test that contains sub-tests on knowledge, visual spatial abilities, working memory, quantitative reasoning, fluid reasoning, and knowledge.

The children were also give the Autism-Spectrum Quotient assessment, which measures the level of autistic characteristics. The child prodigies’ test scores were compared to a control group of 174 adults who were recruited randomly by mail.

Of the eight prodigies examined, three had a diagnosis of an autism spectrum disorder. Also, when compared with the control group, the child prodigies tended to have moderately elevated scores of autistic traits.

Half of the prodigies had a family member or other close relative with an autism spectrum disorder. This is unusual because only one in 120 people are affected by autism.

Ruthsatz said:

“The link between child prodigies and autism is strong in our study. 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.”

Results of the study also showed that child prodigies had higher general intelligence scores, and excelled even more in working memory, in which all the children scored above the 99th percentile.

Also in comparison to the control group, a steady rise in autistic traits was seen in the prodigies, however, this rise was smaller than normally seen in high-functioning autistic people, such as those diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome.

Autism is a developmental disability with symptoms such as problems socializing and communicating, and resistance to change. Asperger’s syndrome is characterized by difficulty with social interaction but generally normal intelligence.

On one subsection of the autism assessment, attention to detail, the prodigies scored higher than the Asperger’s group and the control group. Surprisingly, it was not the three child prodigies with autism who led this finding; the three with autism scored an 8 on attention to detail, while the group as a whole scored 8.5.

The prodigies scored in the gifted range on the intelligence test, which was not so striking. Of the child prodigies, five scored in the 90th percentile or above, one scored at the 70th percentile, and another at the 79th percentile.

The prodigies did exceptional on one sub-test of the intelligence test, the working memory, with all of them reaching over the 99th percentile.

Working memory is the area of the brain that enables people to contain various pieces of information in their mind for a short time in an effort to perform a task.

Ruthsatz said, “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.”

The authors say these results show that child prodigies have important similarities with autistic intellectuals, people who have the developmental disorders connected with autism combined with an exception skill set or knowledge that is well above ordinary.

Previous studies have recognized autism as unusual because individuals with this disorder show exceptional abilities. These symptoms of episodic brilliance manifest themselves as eerie visual capability or memory for detail, an abnormality, brushed off as a sign of their high cognitive deficit.

Ruthsatz commented, “But while autistic savants display many of the deficits commonly associated with autism, the child prodigies do not. The question is why?”

The answer may be a genetic mutation that enables prodigies to have an enormous talent found in intellectuals, but without the shortfalls seen in autism.

Ruthsatz believes these conclusions suggest child prodigies may have some slight version of autism that allows them to possess an exceptional talent.

Written by Kelly Fitzgerald