What Genius and Autism Have in Common. Maia Szalavitz. 2012.
Child prodigy: A novel cognitive profile places elevated general intelligence, exceptional working memory and attention to detail at the root of prodigiousness. Joanne Ruthsatz & Jourdan B. Urbach. 2012.
Time Magazine author Maia Szalavitz begins her article with this statement: “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?” (Szalavitz 2012) This is, in truth, the feeling I think many musicians would echo regarding the existence of child prodigies, but now there is research being done that is trying to figure out why this children have these unbelieveable abilities.
The study performed by Joanne Ruthsatz and Jourdan B. Urbach looks at 8 different prodigies – 6 of whom are still children and 2 of whom are adults – and attempts to compare them and discover the similarities in their neurological functions.
One major factor appears to be an increase in working memory: whereas most people can hold a maximum of 7 numbers in their head at a time – mercifully, the same number of digits in a phone number – prodigies are capable of holding many more, as well as being able to put them to use in mathematical functions. This does not apply only to numbers – in the case of musicians, it would also mean patterns of notes, which is why many child prodigy musicians can play a complex piece of music by memory after only seeing it once.
A surprising outcome was that the prodigies were not necessarily linked to exceptionally high IQ’s. They all had higher-than-average intelligence, but their IQ scores were clearly not in correlation to their prodigious abilities.
The most striking thing found in the study was the correlation to autism – prodigies were found to score high on the autistic scale, especially in terms of their great attention to detail (which was even higher than many people diagnosed with Aspergers would have.) They have two other major associations with autism – the higher likelihood of being male, and their mothers having had difficult pregnancies.
One school of though regarding how autism functions in the brain is that higher levels of local connectivity can heighten attention and perception, but diminished connections between more distant regions cause the sensory overload inherent in autism. The connection to prodigies might be that while the local connections remain more highly connected, the distant connections are not diminished, leaving them with the high level of perception without the sensory overload effect.
As a musician, I can’t say I didn’t find the fact that these prodigies are certainly thought to be “born” as opposed to “created”, since I have difficulty imagining how any amount of practicing might lead to the unbelievable musical skills required to do some of the things these prodigies are capable of doing.
I found it very interesting that there might be links between autism and child prodigies, since the two are so oppositionally placed in terms of society – the child prodigy revered and the autistic child sometimes discouraged. If anything, this should be leading the scientific community, and honestly, everyone to be re-examining how we look at the education and treatment of children with severe autism. If they do in fact share the same level of heightened perception as child prodigies, then there’s nothing saying they can’t use the same fantastic abilities very constructively if we’re able to figure out how to strengthen the connections to these more distant regions.