In the past, autism stereotypes often included a savant-like capability in a specific field. Some autistic children were revealed to be prodigies, such as physics student Jacob Barnett.
Now, a new study of twelve child prodigies suggests that there is a genetic link between these children’s special skills and autism spectrum disorder. This discovery could reveal why the two groups share certain traits, such as extraordinary powers of memory and attention to detail.
In the study, conducted by psychology professor Joanne Ruthsatz of Ohio State University, scientists inspected DNA from 12 children with extraordinary abilities in music, the arts, and other fields. They also looked at 39 of the subjects’ family members. Ten of these family members had autism, as did four of the prodigies.
The researchers found there were genetic mutations on chromosome 1 that were shared between the autistic relatives and the prodigies, though the specific mutations involved have yet to be found. Nonetheless, this finding could help illustrate the relationship between child prodigies and autism.
Despite this interesting discovery, the study was not statistically convincing due to its small pool of subjects. There were 12 participants, and only 4 to 14 family members per subject. Even though the authors of the study want to include more participants in future studies, the rarity of child prodigies makes that difficult.
An article by Michael Dhar illustrates this rarity: “Over the past 100 years, the scientific literature has recorded fewer than 20 prodigies. Autism spectrum disorder, in contrast, affects an estimated 1 in 68 children.”
“The study’s primary value,” Dhar continues, “comes in raising new questions.” This remarkable finding introduces the question about the relationship between autism and prodigies. The results, if confirmed, can also support the theory that the disorder is caused by long-distance-connectivity deficiencies in the brain.
Not only are the researchers seeking more subjects, they are also planning to look deeper into the human genome. They only examined the “top 100 most popular mutation sites.” However, Ruthsatz is collaborating with researchers at McGill University to analyze and sequence the mutations involved.
Written by Nina Bergold