At 3 months, Jacob Barnett uttered his first word—ragu—while his mom made spaghetti. Before his first birthday, he memorized the alphabet forward and backward and could soon work 12 puzzles simultaneously. At 1, he began to read.
Then around 16 months, “his mother said it was like the lights were going off,” says Joanne Ruthsatz, a researcher with some startling new insights into children like Jacob. The bright little boy became even more obsessed with shadow and light and his beloved alphabet magnets, but little else. He withdrew from physical contact. He stopped talking much. Soon the kid who was reciting TV shows at 6 months wouldn’t even say “Mommy” and “Daddy.”
Two-year-old Jacob was first diagnosed with Asperger’s disorder, then autism.
His parents were devastated. Behavioral therapies and a special-ed preschool had little effect.
Fast forward…to college
Would it surprise you, then, to learn that within a decade, he’d start college—at age 11? Or that he’s now pursuing a PhD, researching loop quantum gravity and quantum foundations? (Translation: Um, some kind of quantum physics.) And that he’s now as lively and engaging as he is brilliant—check out his 2012 TEDxTeen talk, “Forget What You Know.”
Forget what you know about autism, his story suggests.
Jacob is a fascinating window into two puzzling conditions that share many traits—and increasingly seem to be genetically connected, says Joanne Ruthsatz, an assistant professor of psychology at Ohio State who’s the co-author of The Prodigy’s Cousin: The Family Link between Autism and Extraordinary Talent, with her daughter Kimberly Stephens.
The hope: that studying prodigies might be a surprising new path to help the many, many more who have autism.
The autism-prodigy connection
For most of her career, Ruthsatz focused only on child prodigies—kids who reach professional status in a demanding field before age 10. Think: Mozart, who started composing at 3, or Picasso, said to draw before he could talk. She’s found kids who can memorize pi to the 100,000th digit and master a Beethoven symphony in a week. They’re very rare; in 20 years, she’s found fewer than 40, which is the largest sample of prodigies ever assembled.
But as she got to know her subjects, she began to realize that many of them—more than half, it turned out—had a close relative (or several) with autism.
“Our evidence suggests that prodigies are people who should have autism but don’t. They share many of the same characteristics of someone with autism, like obsessiveness and attention to detail, but not the deficits,” says Ruthsatz, one of the first researchers to make this connection.
“I think there’s a latent gene, a ‘resilience gene,’ that prodigies are carrying that allows talent to shine through while holding back or blocking the deficits,” she told me.
5 traits prodigies and autists share
Let’s face it: From diagnosis onward, autism is mostly approached in terms of what’s missing: not looking others in the eye, not playing with other kids, not speaking, not being affectionate, not behaving in “neurotypical” ways.
Autists (that’s what Ruthsatz prefers to call children with autism, a term more parallel to prodigies) share some fascinating traits with exceptional learners:
Obsessive interests. Prodigies usually excel at one area—art, music, physics—and fixate on it. “Children with autism also often have obsessions with particular subjects or talents,” Ruthsatz says. “But because of their troubles communicating and showing emotions, they’re not often encouraged to follow these obsessions.” Trains, physics, video games, and numbers are among the most common obsessive interests seen in autism, she adds.
Strong working memory. Prodigies have astounding memories. Though not every autist does, the trait is seen dramatically with savants (someone with a spike in a particular ability—the “Rain Man” type). Up to three-quarters of savants have autism.
Attention to detail. The ability to notice and remember small things that others ignore or forget is seen as a key feature of the autistic brain.
Synesthesia. Here’s a curious trait that’s hard to imagine if you don’t have it. Synesthesia is an unexpected response to a certain stimulus: seeing orange when you taste watermelon, for example, or thinking of a square when you see the number 3. Adults with autism are more than three times more likely to have synesthesia than those without autism. It’s also common in prodigies and savants.
Extreme empathy. This one’s really fascinating. Prodigies have an “incredible altruism,” Ruthsatz says, seeking to do good and help others. In contrast, people with autism were long thought to lack empathy—until studies within the past 15 years or so began to show that instead, they may have hyperactive brains that are empathetic to the extreme.
“People with autism are so sensitive and perceptive and feel so deeply that it’s difficult for them to bond,” she says. This popular, though not proven, idea is called “intense world theory”—autists become overwhelmed by their feelings and withdraw from social interactions.
“I think prodigies’ stories can be a reminder of how powerful the signs associated with autism can be,” Ruthsatz told me.
New treatment directions
These similarities, Ruthsatz suggests, point to new ways to think about autism and helping kids who have it.
“The idea of paying more attention to strengths instead of working to overcome challenges, like making eye contact, is gaining traction,” she told me. “People are getting more interested.”
A key idea is something that she’s seen many parents of prodigies stumble on intuitively: “training the talent.” Once they see a passion take hold in their child, they give into supporting it, even when it’s at obsessive levels.
Remember Jacob, who could say ragu at 3 months but was diagnosed with autism by the time he was 3 years old? When his special-ed preschool seemed to have little effect, his mom, Kristine, made the tough decision to back off the intensive therapies. She was afraid that in the efforts to pull him away from his focus on shadows and other distractions, he was missing out on the beautiful fun of childhood.
First just in the evenings, and then soon all day (she withdrew him from school), she instead let him dive into those repetitive behaviors that seemed so scary. She did it because it seemed to soothe him and make him happy. If he wanted to sit and look at glass and light for hours on end, she let him. She’d fill 50 glasses with water at different levels for him to inspect and explore. At 3, Jacob became attached to an advanced astronomy textbook in a bookstore; she bought it for him. Soon after, he visited a planetarium and shocked his mother by answering a question the lecturer posed to the group. (She wrote about her experiences—which are far more incredible than this brief synopsis suggests—in her 2013 book, The Spark: A Mother’s Story of Nurturing, Genius, and Autism.)
As Jacob himself said in his TEDxTeen talk: “I was focusing on things in such extreme detail that it seemed I wasn’t thinking at all.”
“What often happens is that when you train the talent, other things come along with it—the child is excited and works harder to get words out to tell you about it or gets better at social skills to learn more,” Ruthsatz told me. “Passionate interests can be powerful.”
The idea that Jacob or kids like him “recover” from autism is controversial. Ruthsatz and many other experts prefer to see his experience as an example of an “optimal outcome” of who he is, which stemmed from developing his unusual strengths.
She quotes autism researcher Laurent Mottron of the University of Montreal: “The goal shouldn’t be to make autists not autistic; it should be to recognize the unique contributions of autists and the distinct ways that autists process information.”
Jacob Barnett says that he’s capable of advanced physics not in spite of his autism but because of it.
Training the talent might work for some kids with autism, just as behavioral therapy, speech therapy, and other interventions have varying degrees of success with different kids.
It’s impossible to predict which treatment will make a difference, experts say, because there may be many different triggers leading to autistic symptoms. Autism is increasingly seen as a set of related but distinct neurological variations—not a single “disorder.”
Next step: Finding out more
Discovering a connection between prodigy and autism might eventually help explain why one kid with autistic traits, like a whipsaw memory, becomes a prodigy capable of painting masterpieces, writing symphonies, or solving complex math problems in what he calls the “fourth dimension” of his mind—while another struggles with even basic learning and communication.
Ultimately, it’s sheer trial-and-error to treat symptoms without knowing the cause. “Autism is so complex. It’s very difficult to know ahead of time what works best for someone until we have a better sense of their biological underpinnings,” Ruthsatz says.
That’s why the genetic connection to prodigies is so exciting to researchers like her. “We’re very interested in finding out if there’s a genetic chain holding back the deficits. If there is, it brings us one step closer to understanding autism,” she told me.
That’s what happened in AIDS research. When researchers studied people with HIV who were expected to develop AIDS but didn’t, they were able to find a genetic mutation that caused the infection to pass through their bodies. That led to treatments that mimick this effect in other people who are HIV positive. There’s growing interest in finding these “genetic superheroes” in other areas of disease too.
Already, the Ohio State team has discovered a mutation on chromosome 1 that prodigies share with their relatives with autism but not with their other relatives. Next Ruthsatz is working with a McGill University team led by Guy Rouleau to look for other mutations that contribute to extreme talents, which could also shed light not just on that brain mystery but on the mystery of autism itself.
Every child has strengths
“Mystery” is an apt word. The extraordinary accomplishments of the rare “child genius” prodigies Ruthsatz studies are pretty far out there, whether you’re comparing them to kids on or off the autism spectrum.
Then again, when you think about it, all children are something of a mystery.
Ruthsatz was describing to me what she’d say to the parent of an older child with autism who was just learning about her findings, but it’s pretty great advice for any parent: “Appreciate their strengths. Think about ways to develop those strengths so the child can enjoy them. Spend time with them. Help them find what makes them happy.”
Whatever’s going on in their brains, our kids seem to do better when we shift our focus away from what’s missing to embracing what’s there.