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THE PRODIGY'S COUSIN by Joanne Ruthsatz


The Family Link Between Autism and Extraordinary Talent

by Joanne Ruthsatz & Kimberly Stephens

Pub Date: March 1st, 2016
ISBN: 978-1-61723-018-9
Publisher: Current

An exploration of the quest for a link between high-functioning autistic individuals and child prodigies, co-authored by mother-daughter team Ruthsatz (Psychology/Ohio State Univ.) and journalist Stephens.

In 1998, Ruthsatz, then a graduate student, was exploring what makes prodigies tick. Her particular interest was the nature vs. nurture debate. Her hypothesis was that three factors were involved in their success: “general intelligence, practice time and skills specific to a particular field.” While meeting a young boy with exceptional musical talent, a chance encounter with his autistic cousin prompted her to wonder what they might have in common. Over time, a picture began to emerge: “extraordinary memories, eagle eyes for detail, and voracious appetites for their chosen subjects.” Ruthsatz broadened her inquiry to include autistic children who became outstanding artists, as well as child prodigies with a wide range of talents, including a young gourmet chef. With modest grant money to pursue her research, she was able to include genetic testing in her journey. By the end of 2011, Ruthsatz “had investigated nine prodigies.” Admittedly, this is a small sample, but the results were provocative. She discovered that autism was indeed prevalent in the prodigies’ families, suggesting a genetic component. In several cases, genetic analysis showed a particular mutation carried by prodigies and their autistic relatives. Aside from the fact that her subjects were not chosen randomly—parents had to be willing for the interview to take place—the autistic children were chosen from the high end of the spectrum. Ruthsatz believes that behavioral therapy for autistic children should positively reinforce their potential talents, as well as social and language skills. The authors do not claim to have definitive answers, but they raise fascinating questions about the extent to which autism confers benefits as well as disabilities.

An intriguing exploration of a unique hypothesis with broad implications.