Autism and Intelligence
‘Baby geniuses’ and autistic individuals may have something more in common than you think, study shows.

Child prodigies, youngsters who demonstrate cognitive gifts beyond their years, may be autistic.

This is the stunning contention of researchers from Yale University and Ohio State University in a study recently published in the journal Intelligence. The researchers also suggest that child geniuses are fiercely attentive to detail, even more so than sufferers of Asperger’s syndrome, a disabling type of autism.

Eight child prodigies, whose identities were not disclosed, took center stage in the study. By age 10, all had vaunted accomplishments the average adult could only dream of. One child started a previously unheard mathematical discipline before age 13. Another was a molecular gastronomist who started programming computers at 3 and produced a catering function at 11. Most others were musical geniuses, able to memorize compositions after listening to just one rendition, and had thrown concerts around the world by the time they turned 10.

One genius talked within 3 months of birth and was already reading by 12 months. Yet he ceased to talk altogether when he was 18 months old; he only resumed 12 months thereafter. At age 3, he was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.

Two other prodigies had the condition too. Moreover, four of the prodigies were related up to the second degree to persons diagnosed with autism.

Here’s the catch: Child prodigies seemingly benefit from traits ascribed to autism. In the study, they tested higher than non-autistic respondents on those traits, e.g. excessive attention to detail and repulsive people skills. Participants with Asperger’s tested the highest on nearly all traits, but the child prodigies still scored the highest on detail-orientation.

Researchers speculate that prodigies nurture a skill or inherit a characteristic honing their attentiveness to detail, without exacerbating disabilities associated with autism spectrum disorders or Asperger’s.

This is not the first study on the connection between genius and autism, but it appears to be the most systematical. A 2007 study merely found that close relations of both prodigies and autistic individuals showed autistic traits. Way before that, in 1944, Hans Asperger noticed that children with his namesake syndrome were bossier than normal and had good diction, just like “little professors.”

Autism is thought to emerge when local brain regions become overly entangled while connectivity between distant regions decreases, magnifying memory but intensifying anxiety and overloading the senses. Experts have theorized that the brains of child geniuses are wired similarly to autistic individuals. The two may also be similar on other fronts: They tend to be male and come from troubled pregnancies.

True enough, the researchers discovered that the prodigies evinced superlative working memory, or the ability to mentally process and remember various amounts of information. While the average person’s working memory allows remembrance of phone digits, prodigies can commit a gargantuan quantity of numbers to mind and compute them. All eight prodigies’ working memories exceeded the researchers’ measures.

Genius may seem to be a birthright but it could also be labored. Some theorists insist one could become an achiever with 10 years of practice. But as studies like this prove, brains with a certain makeup have things easier.

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