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Sunday, July 15, 2012

Child Prodigies and Autism - Three Reports

First, from Slate's Culture Blog Browbeat

Do Child Prodigies Owe Their Talents to Autism?

By Katy Waldman
July 10, 2102

A new, in-depth study of eight super-talented children, published in the journal Intelligence, suggests that autism runs in the family for prodigies. Four out of eight of the children—musical virtuosos, painting geniuses, and chess stars—reported relatives with a diagnosis. (To put that number in perspective: In the United States, one out of 88 kids has been diagnosed with autism).

Prodigies reach stunning levels of achievement in non-verbal, rule-bound domains at a young age. They’re different from savants, or people who also demonstrate extraordinary gifts but have social or mental impairments. (Darold A. Treffert poetically describes the savant mind as an “island of genius” lapped by waves of disability).

"...the prodigies themselves showed higher levels of autistic traits than did children in a control group. In particular, the prodigies scored off the charts on 'attention to detail,” a quality closely associated with the autism spectrum."

And yet the line between savant and prodigy seems slightly blurrier when viewed through the lens of this investigation, led by Ohio State Mansfield professor Joanne Ruthsatz and concert violinist Jourdan Urbach: not only did the developmental disorder appear more frequently in the prodigies’ family histories, but the prodigies themselves showed higher levels of autistic traits than did children in a control group. In particular, the prodigies scored off the charts on “attention to detail,” a quality closely associated with the autism spectrum.

The prodigies were also given the most recent version of the Stanford-Binet IQ test. Not all of them cracked the genius threshold—some of the overall scores were pretty average—but the subtest scores were distinctive. Every prodigy earned astronomically high (above the 99th percentile) results in the “working memory” category.

"Every prodigy earned astronomically high (above the 99th percentile) results in the 'working memory' category."

This kind of memory describes a knack for juggling multiple ideas and weaving new knowledge into the totality of remembered fact. It allows you to retrieve files from your mental archives even as you process incoming data, allowing potentially fleeting details to take root in your existing knowledge. Put simply, working memory is how you build on expertise you’ve already got.

This is significant because prodigies are known for developing an astonishingly large mental database related to a particular rule-bound domain—and for doing it in a breathtakingly short period of time. When you add an elevated “attention to detail” to a turbo-charged working memory, the almost magical powers of prodigies start to make sense. Which means that prodigies may have autism (or at least autism-affiliated traits) to thank for some of their remarkable feats.


Next, from Time Magazine's Blog Healthland

What Genius and Autism Have in Common

By Maia Szalavitz

July 10, 2012

"A study of eight child prodigies finds that share some striking characteristics, most notably high levels of autistic traits and an overrepresentation of autism in their close family members."

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 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.

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, 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."

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.

"...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."

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.

(PHOTOS: A Summer Camp for Autistic Kids)

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 usually 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 everyone else, 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.

About Maia Szalavitz

Maia Szalavitz is a neuroscience journalist obsessed with addiction, love, evidence-based living, empathy, fertility and pretty much everything related to brain and behavior. Szalavitz is the co-author of Born for Love: Why Empathy is Essential — and Endangered (Morrow, 2010) and The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog (Basic, 2006), both with Dr. Bruce D. Perry. She is the author of Help at Any Cost: How the Troubled-Teen Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids (Riverhead, 2006), the first book-length exposé of the “tough love” business. Szalavitz’s work has been published in TIME Magazine, the New York Times, Elle, Scientific American Mind, the Washington Post, New Scientist and Psychology Today, among many others. She is the winner of the American Psychological Association's Division 50 Award for Contributions to the Addictions.


By Scott Barry Kaufman, Ph.D.
July 6, 2012

Prodigies dazzle us with their virtuoso violin concertos, seemingly prescient chess moves, and vivid paintings. While their work would be enough to impress us if they were 40, prodigies typically reach adult levels of performance in non-verbal, rule-based domains such as chess, art, and musicbefore the age of 10.

Their performances are hard to explain from a purely deliberate practice perspective. While it's true that many prodigies receive support, resources, and encouragement from parents and coaches early on, such support is typically the result of a demonstrated "rage to learn", as the prodigy expert Martha J. Morelock refers to the phenomenon. Of course, one could make the argument that the only thing distinguishing prodigies from their peers is this intense drive to achieve and improve, which results in the accumulation of many hours of deliberate practice. And this is precisely what has been argued by some researchers, most prominently K. Anders Ericsson and his colleagues at Florida State University.

Researchers who have spent years working with prodigies and witnessing their development firsthand have come to a different conclusion. For instance, in a recent handbook on intelligence I co-edited, David Henry Feldman and Martha Morelock make the case that child prodigies aren't distinguished by their overall IQ, but are exceptionaly talented in specific skills related to their domain. Both Feldman and Morelock have extensively studied precocious children, and their conclusions are based on careful analysis of the children they've worked with as well as the larger literature on prodigies.

Unfortunately, there really aren't that many systematic studies of prodigies, at least in comparison to the study of adult experts. I think that's unfortunate because prodigies have a lot to teach us, not only about the mechanisms underlying human memory, learning, and extraordinary performance, but also about what it takes to develop such skills so rapidly and with so much flair.

Which is why I was very pleased to see a new study in the journal Intelligence that sheds some new light on prodigies. Psychologist Joanne Ruthsatz and violin virtuoso Jourdan Urbach adminstered the latest edition of the Stanford-Binet IQ test to nine prominent child prodigies who have all been featured on national and international television programs. Most of the children reached professional level performance in their domain by the age of 10, and their chosen domains were notably rule-based. There was one art prodigy, one math prodigy, four musical prodigies, one prodigy who switched from music to gastronomy and another prodigy who switched from music to art. Here are a few examples to give you a flavor for the rapid development of some of these children:


The third child prodigy was 18 years old at the time of testing. He is the oldest child of two. His mother reported that he had advanced physical skills and was crawling by four months old and walking purposefully by 10 months of age. At 18 months, he was speaking in complete sentences, and by 22 months he was reading 1st and 2nd grade readers cover-to-cover, sounding out unfamiliar words.

At 28 months, the prodigy's parents gave him a small violin. His mother reports that he demonstrated extraordinary facility with the bow, and unusual agility with his left hand (fingering hand) from the time he began playing. He completed in a month or two tasks that usually take children two years to learn. By four, he had learned all of the Suzuki volumes of classical music. In doing so, he was aided by his prodigious ability in reading music and his almost photo-graphic memory for music. He could hear a song and play it back almost immediately. By five, he was winning regional competitions against much older students, and soon thereafter he made his professional Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall debuts as a soloist with major orchestras. At seven, he was recognized by the great virtuosos of our time and a pedagogue considered a star maker of violin prodigies took him on as her youngest student. He attended Juilliard's Pre-College. He began to tour nationally by age 13 with a huge repertoire, including several different concerti and concert pieces that he had committed to memory.

Testing Results

Total IQ Score= 129; Fluid reasoning= 106; Knowledge= 126; Quantitative Reasoning= 119; Visual Spatial Abilities= 126; Working Memory= 141


At the time of testing, prodigy seven, a self-taught painter, was nineteen years of age. Although she had been interested in arts and crafts for as long as she could remember, she did not begin to paint until she was 13 years old. She said she was inspired by a young art prodigy she saw on television. After just eighteen months of painting, the prodigy won the National Gold Key award, the most prestigious art award given to high school students, at the age of 15. She was one of 50 recipients of the award across the country. At nineteen, her work is selling for thousands of dollars and is displayed in prestigious art museums around the world.

Testing Results

Total IQ Score= 112; Fluid reasoning= 100; Knowledge= 128; Quantitative Reasoning= 100; Visual Spatial Abilities= 88; Working Memory= 138

Looking at all eight children together, the researchers found some striking patterns. The first thing they noticed is the wide spread of IQ scores- ranging from 108 to 147. Consistent with the work of Feldman and Morelock, it appears that a high IQ is not necessary to be a prodigy. More telling, however, were the subtest scores. All of the prodigies showed uneven cognitive profiles. In fact, one prodigy obtained a total IQ score of 108 and a visual spatial IQ score of 71, which is worse than 97 percent of the general population. That didn't prevent him from winning a prestigious award for his violin jazz improvisational abilities, becoming the youngest person ever to perform with Wynton Marsalis at the Lincoln Center! He also scored three films without any formal composition lessons. Again, this is consistent with prior research showing that balanced cognitive test profiles are more the exception than the rule among academically precocious students as well as students who are precocious in art and music.

More striking is that every single prodigy scored off the charts in working memory -- better than 99 percent of the general population. In fact, six out of the eight prodigies scored at the 99.9th percentile! Working memory isn't solely the ability to memorize a string of digits. That's short-term memory. Instead, working memory involves the ability to hold information in memory while being able to manipulate and process other incoming information. On the Stanford-Binet IQ test, working memory is measured in both the verbal and non-verbal domains and includes tasks such as processing sentences while having to remember the last word of each sentence, and recalling the location of blocks and numbers in the correct order in which they were presented. 

There have been many descriptions of the phenomenal working memory of prodigies, including a historical description of Mozart that involves his superior ability to memorize musical pieces and manipulate scores in his head. 

Of course, the million-dollar question is this: How did all the prodigies develop such a high working memory? Anders Ericsson and Walter Kintsch proposed a mechanism called Long-Term Working Memory (LTWM) to explain how experts can store incoming information so quickly in their area of expertise. According to Ericsson and Kintsch, experts acquire their superior memory skills by gradually building up an elaborate, well-connected database of knowledge in long-term memory that is always on call. Experts then quickly link the current contents of short-term memory to this database, making the short-term memories more vivid and meaningful.

Deeper memory encoding makes it much easier to access memories when they are cued at a later time. The proof in the pudding is that people can be trained to increase their memories dramatically for seemingly random bits of information by making the information meaningful. Most memory champions have spent years deliberately practicing techniques such as the method of loci to increase their memories for random strings of digits, numbers, faces, and even decks of cards.

But can the deliberate practice of memory techniques explain the high working memory of prodigies? Presumably, they weren't trying to win a memory championship. Instead, they were far more interested in mastering music or art. One of the prodigies in the study reported that he sometimes pretends to not remember things since he found that people become uncomfortable with his prodigious memory. "People assume I must be thinking about them 24/7 when I am not," he noted. "It's just that I can remember every detail of the past." In their terrific book Superior Memory, Elizabeth Wilding and John Wilding present cases of superior memory performance that are not easily explained through the use of deliberate strategies.

So maybe there's more to this story. Intriguingly, the work of Ruthsatz and her colleagues suggests another important piece of this puzzle may involve autism. Individuals with autism-spectrum condition (ASC) are typically characterized by social, communicative, and motor impairments. In an earlier, preliminary study, Ruthsatz found that both the first-degree families of individuals with autism and the first-degree families of prodigies in her sample displayed three out of five common traits of autism: impaired social skills, impaired ability to switch attention, and heightened attention to detail. This intrigued her, so she decided to look for autism in her current sample of prodigies.

Lo and behold, while about one in every 88 children in the United States is diagnosed with autism,four out of the eight prodigies in the current study had family members who either had an autism diagnosis or had a first- or second-degree relative with an autism diagnosis. Additionally, three of the prodigies had already been diagnosed with autism, and as a group they showed higher levels of autistic traits compared with a control group consisting of people weren't prodigies (but scored only slightly higher than those with high-functioning autism, or Asperger's). While the large majority of people with autism weren't child prodigies, these results are suggestive that there is a prevalence of autism among prodigies. One particular autistic-like trait stood out, however: attention to detail. This trait was higher among the prodigies than either the control group or those with high-functioning autism.

This finding may shed some light on the rapid development of prodigies as well as their extraordinary working memory. The only other group of individuals known for their dazzling displays of memory in non-verbal, rule-based domains such art, music, and calendar calculating areprodigious savants. There are fewer than 100 known prodigious savants alive today (see here for an interview I conducted with Daniel Tammet, a well-known prodigious savant and here for an interview with Darold Treffert, the world's foremost expert on savants). The difference between savants and prodigies is that savants displays high ability in the presence of great disability. Often that disability is severe, deabilitating autism that impairs language and communication so much that it leaves an 'island of genius' (although Daniel Tammet is an interesting and rare exception, in that he has highly functional autism as well as synaesthesia). Ruthsatz and Urbach suggest that,

"...the fact that the prodigies operate without many of the deficits commonly associated with the condition [autism], however, suggests the presence of a modifier of some sort that prevents the child prodigies from displaying these deficits. The existence of such a modifier could have significant benefits for the autistic community. Additional research should be conducted to explore this possibility and identify any such moderator."

Both prodigies and savants demonstrate extreme attention to detail, exceptional memories, and high ability in rule-based domains. This is probably not a coincidence, as all of these characteristics are associated with talent in these domains. But how? First of all, there's no such thing as "innate talent." No one is born with fully developed traits. That's not how genes work. It is possible, however, that prodigies are born with genetic variants that relate to various tendencies, including an attentional focus on details and a brain-network wiring that supports an enhanced encoding of new memories. This could explain why prodigies and savants frequently report that they were attracted early on to domains that deal with systems, and why many also display -- even in infancy -- an enhanced ability to maintain mental representations (although there's some evidence that the working memory of prodigies is most enhanced in the symbol systems that interest them the most, such as mathematical or linguistic stimuli). After just a few years of obsessive focus, prodigies build up rich long-term memory structures that allow them to assimilate and learn new information faster and faster. This could also explain their enhanced ability to manipulate information in their heads.

While it's particularly important to build these knowledge structures in youth when the brain is at its most plastic state of development, life isn't a zero-sum game. Just because prodigies exist doesn't mean life is hopeless if you weren't a prodigy. There is research showing the positive benefits of working-memory training, and there is even new tentative evidence that synesthesia can be trained. In a wide range of fields, especially ones that require leadership and creativity, the number of elite experts who weren't child prodigies far outnumber those who were. Late blooming is possible.

Still, I can't help but think there's more to this story than just superior memory, attention to detail, and deliberate practice. The researchers only looked at the results of a single IQ test. There's much more to humanity. The prodigies who grow up to become the superstars of their field seem to have additional traits that make them stand out.

Consider Terrence Tao, a professor of Mathematics at UCLA and winner of the Nobel Prize in mathematics-- the Fields Medal. There was something specifically about math that suited him. Terrence mastered most of the primary school math curriculum while he was still in kindergarten. At seven, he was discussing Boolean algebra and Albelian groups, and by 8 he scored 760 on the math section of the SAT. Terrence is actually the oldest in his family.

His two brothers were also extremely precocious. Interestingly (and relevant to the study discussed in this article), his middle brother, Trevor, was diagnosed with autism at the age of two, but that didn't stop him from mastering multiple rule-based domains of expertise. He won the Australian Junior Chess Championship at the age of 14, and multiple prizes for his classical musical compositions. He also mastered the piano, and received a diploma in mathematical sciences. But still, Trevor was missing something that Terrence seemed to possess that enabled him to climb to the top of the mathematics field.

Or consider cellist Jacqueline du Pré. Every time I hear her play the Elgar Cello Sonata, I am moved to tears. Sure, part of her story is superior memory. When du Pré was given the Elgar concerto by her teacher when she was only 13, not only did she memorize the concerto in 4 days, but she was described by her teacher as performing it "almost impeccably." But that doesn't seem to be the whole story. Her performances were truly breathtaking. They were much, much more than superior memory and virtuoso skill. They were sensitive, lush, expressive, and playful. Her personality shines through in all of her performances. There also appears to be a great harmony between her and the cello, suggesting that music in general, and the cello in particular, may be a particularly good fit for her unique constellation of traits.

I'll leave you with one of her earlier performances of the Elgar, not only as a reminder of the depth of some prodigies, but also as a reminder of what may be possible with such dedication and intensity.

About Scott Barry Kaufman, Ph.D.

Scott Barry Kaufman, Ph.D. is a cognitive psychologist specializing in the development of intelligence, creativity, and personality. He applies a variety of perspectives to come to a richer understanding and appreciation of all kinds of minds and ways of achieving greatness. Scott is Adjunct Assistant Professor of Psychology at New York University and Co-founder of The Creativity Post, a non-profit web platform that features quality content on creativity, innovation and imagination. Find out more at ScottBarryKaufman.com

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