Nav: Home

How studying child prodigies helps us understand autism

March 29, 2016

COLUMBUS, Ohio - Scientists may learn a lot about autism from studying a group of people who don't have the disorder.

Joanne Ruthsatz, assistant professor of psychology at The Ohio State University at Mansfield, is one of the first researchers to have uncovered the link between prodigy and autism.

In a new book, Ruthsatz and a co-author explain how what she has learned about child prodigies may help us not only understand autism, but could point the way to new treatments.

"Our evidence suggests that prodigies are people who should have autism, but don't. They share many of the same characteristics of people with autism, but not the deficits," she said.

"We believe that, for prodigies, there is a resilience gene or genes that are holding back the deficits associated with autism and allowing the talent to shine through."

Ruthsatz discusses her research in the book The Prodigy's Cousin: The Family Link between Autism and Extraordinary Talent, written with her daughter, journalist Kimberly Stephens.

The book highlights Ruthsatz's 18 years of research on prodigies, which led to her discovery of a family link to autism. The first prodigy she studied, in 1998, had a cousin with autism.

She has now studied more than 30 prodigies - the largest research sample of these rare individuals every created. She has found that more than half of them have a close relative with autism. Some of them have several relatives affected by autism.

"We've learned this isn't a coincidence. These prodigies and their relatives with autism have a genetic link in common," she said.

In a study published last year, Ruthsatz and her colleagues discovered a mutation on chromosome 1 that prodigies share with their relatives with autism, but not with their other relatives.

"It's a fascinating link, but it is just the beginning of the genetic research," she said. "I am very excited about what the DNA studies are going to tell us."

Ruthsatz is working with a research team from McGill University in Canada to uncover DNA evidence of a resilience gene or genes in prodigies.

Trying to learn about a disease by studying people who don't have it is not a new thing in science, Ruthsatz said.

In the book, the authors discuss how HIV researchers learned a lot by studying people who should have had HIV, but didn't. These scientists found a genetic mutation that doesn't allow for receptor sites to form on immune cells that are killed by the virus. For the lucky people with this mutation, HIV literally washes right through their body.

"The people with this mutation are the prodigies of the HIV world; researchers studied them so they could help their 'cousins' who contracted HIV," she said.

With their genetic link, it is not surprising that prodigies and people with autism have much in common. Prodigies have autistic characteristics, such as extraordinary attention to detail and a tendency toward obsession.

These similarities may point to new ways to think about autism, and ways to help some of the children who have it, she said.

One promising avenue involves what is called "training the talent." When parents of prodigies realize that their child has an extraordinary talent in art or math or astronomy, they understandably try to nurture that talent, even if it seems to border on obsession.

Children with autism also often have obsessions with particular subjects or talents. But because of their troubles communicating and showing emotions, parents often don't let them follow these obsessions.

Ruthsatz has uncovered a few instances, however, where parents have let their children with autism pursue their passions.

"Instead of focusing entirely on trying to teach the children to speak or to make eye contact, the parents let their child do the thing they love to do, whatever that is," she said.

"In some cases, the children get excited about their particular talent, they get good at it, and they want to communicate about it. The speech and communication and social skills come along with their growing ability."

This is treating children with autism as if they were prodigies by focusing on their strengths and ignoring the deficits, she said. In some cases, those deficits become less pronounced as they follow their talents.

Ruthsatz cautioned that this approach doesn't work with all children with autism and has not been scientifically tested yet.

It is unlikely that any one treatment will help all children with autism because the condition seems to be a set of related but distinct disorders.

"Trying to find a treatment that works for everyone based solely on similarity of symptoms is like trying to treat all people who have trouble breathing by giving them a Heimlich: It will help those who are choking, but it's probably not the best answer for a person having an allergic reaction," Ruthsatz and Stephens write in the book.

While the search for treatments continues, Ruthsatz said there is still much more to learn from prodigies.

"We're really just at the beginning of this research. I'm excited about what we will be discovering in the future."
Contact: Joanne Ruthsatz, 419-755-4117;

Written by Jeff Grabmeier, 614-292-8457;

Ohio State University

Related Autism Articles:

Adulthood with autism
The independence that comes with growing up can be scary for any teenager, but for young adults with autism spectrum disorder and their caregivers, the transition from adolescence to adulthood can seem particularly daunting.
Brain protein mutation from child with autism causes autism-like behavioral change in mice
A de novo gene mutation that encodes a brain protein in a child with autism has been placed into the brains of mice.
Autism and theory of mind
Theory of mind, or the ability to represent other people's minds as distinct from one's own, can be difficult for people with autism.
Potential biomarker for autism
A study of young children with autism spectrum disorder published in JNeurosci reveals altered brain waves compared to typically developing children during a motor control task.
Autism and the smell of fear
Autism typically involves the inability to read social cues. We most often associate this with visual difficulty in interpreting facial expression, but new research at the Weizmann Institute of Science suggests that the sense of smell may also play a central role in autism.
Autism often associated with multiple new mutations
Most autism cases are in families with no previous history of the disorder.
State laws requiring autism coverage by private insurers led to increases in autism care
A new study led by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health has found that the enactment of state laws mandating coverage of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) was followed by sizable increases in insurer-covered ASD care and associated spending.
Autism's gender patterns
Having one child with autism is a well-known risk factor for having another one with the same disorder, but whether and how a sibling's gender influences this risk has remained largely unknown.
Pinpointing the origins of autism
The origins of autism remain mysterious. What areas of the brain are involved, and when do the first signs appear?
Genes, ozone, and autism
Exposure to ozone in the environment puts individuals with high levels of genetic variation at an even higher risk for developing autism than would be expected just by adding the two risk factors together, a new analysis shows.
More Autism News and Autism Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Listen Again: Reinvention
Change is hard, but it's also an opportunity to discover and reimagine what you thought you knew. From our economy, to music, to even ourselves–this hour TED speakers explore the power of reinvention. Guests include OK Go lead singer Damian Kulash Jr., former college gymnastics coach Valorie Kondos Field, Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs, and entrepreneur Nick Hanauer.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#562 Superbug to Bedside
By now we're all good and scared about antibiotic resistance, one of the many things coming to get us all. But there's good news, sort of. News antibiotics are coming out! How do they get tested? What does that kind of a trial look like and how does it happen? Host Bethany Brookeshire talks with Matt McCarthy, author of "Superbugs: The Race to Stop an Epidemic", about the ins and outs of testing a new antibiotic in the hospital.
Now Playing: Radiolab

Dispatch 6: Strange Times
Covid has disrupted the most basic routines of our days and nights. But in the middle of a conversation about how to fight the virus, we find a place impervious to the stalled plans and frenetic demands of the outside world. It's a very different kind of front line, where urgent work means moving slow, and time is marked out in tiny pre-planned steps. Then, on a walk through the woods, we consider how the tempo of our lives affects our minds and discover how the beats of biology shape our bodies. This episode was produced with help from Molly Webster and Tracie Hunte. Support Radiolab today at