Autism and genius have long gone together in the popular imagination (think Rain Man, Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory, and other pop culture depictions of savants), and stories have emerged in recent years about kids who started off autistic and later ended up blowing the world away with their brainpower (Jacob Barnett's story is one of my favorites).
What's always puzzled researchers, however, is the connection between autism and genius in the same family. They've long wondered: How does one child emerge a prodigy and one or more family members end up on the spectrum?
Researchers at Ohio State University may soon have an answer. In a recent study published in Human Hereditary, the OSU team studied the genes of five child prodigies and members of their family with autism. They discovered there's a "locus on chromosome 1 [that] increases the likelihood of both prodigy and autism in these families." The next step is figuring out the reasons for the different expressions of this gene. The study's lead researcher, Joanne Ruthsatz, told PBS: "prodigies may produce a protein that helps them hold back the deficits of autism and allow their talents to shine through."
As with other studies about of autism, I'm fascinated by this one. But, it also leaves me with more questions than answers.
What does it mean to be a "verifiable prodigy" as this OSU study sought? (All of their prodigies had outside recognition in a specific skill, but I wonder if that's an inclusive enough criteria?) What are the "deficits" of autism that Ruthsatz mentions? Do any of the "verifiable prodigies" show any of these negative traits of autism? What do the genes of people like Jacob Barnett and other kids who have been labeled both genius and autistic look like? What does my own non-verbal son's chromosome 1 look like? Is he a secret genius who can't show it because of his expressive language limitations? What do autism advocates say about studies that draw a very clear line in the sand between autism (and its many challenging traits) and genius?
I could go on and on with questions, but there's wisdom in the study's co-author Christopher Bartlett observation: "It is a good start, but it is just a start."
We have so much more to learn about the genetics of autism, genius, and the relationships between them. I can't wait to see what else these researchers discover.
Jamie Pacton lives near Lake Michigan where she drinks loads of coffee, dreams of sailing, and enjoys each day with her husband and two sons, Liam and Eliot. Find her at www.jamiepacton.com, Facebook (Jamie Pacton), and Twitter @jamiepacton