Is there a connection between autism and genius?
Psychologist Joanne Ruthsatz of The Ohio State University thinks so, and her excellent new book, The Prodigy's Cousin (which she co-authored with her daughter Kimberly Stephens), delves deeply into this question. In the book, Ruthsatz expands on ideas she's published in other journals, tells the full story of her research into child prodigies, and explains how that path of study led her to connect them with autism.
The many detailed stories of prodigies are fascinating—we meet art prodigies, math and science prodigies, and even kids who excel at cooking. Although each of these prodigies is different, many of them possess traits seen in autistic people. Some of them even were diagnosed with autism at an early age then lost the diagnosis, and others still identify as autistic and struggle with life skills but have prodigy-level expertise in a specific area (much like 6-year-old autistic art prodigy Iris Grace, who paints incredible art, but struggles with conversation).
As I read The Prodigy's Cousin, I followed each story with interest, and I was especially intrigued by Ruthsatz's findings about how many prodigies had autistic members of their families. The book also overflows with insights that powerfully debunk wrong notions like "autistic people have no empathy" or "autism is all about deficits." As Ruthsatz puts it when explaining different theories of autism that "encompass strengths as well as weaknesses":
"The intense world theory portrays autists as highly empathetic and perceptive individuals with enhanced memory capabilities. [...] strength-recognizing theories, built from the rubble of early deficit-focused theories, offer a starkly different take on autism. From this perspective, the connection between autism and prodigy isn't just conceivable; it's almost inevitable."
As a mom to a wonderful, neurodiverse autistic 7-year-old, I deeply appreciate this assertion. I underlined it several times, and I've taken it—and many other parts of the book— into my daily life. Certainly, I'm not trying to turn my son into a prodigy—though I lingered over the section where Ruthsatz considers if prodigies are born or made and how nurture and parenting can contribute to their growth. What I am doing, however, is focusing more on my son's strengths and pushing him to try new things. For example, although he rarely sits still and can barely hold a pencil, inspired by The Prodigy's Cousin and by talking to parents who have cultivated their autistic children's gifts, I let my son try out some free-form painting. It was messy, but he loved it. And he visibly relaxed as he painted. When I asked him at the end if he liked it, he grinned and gave me a huge hug. I don't know yet if painting will turn out to be one of his strengths, but I'm going to give him the tools and opportunities to try it out. Which I might not have done as readily had I not read this book.
There's much more to be said about The Prodigy's Cousin and its many insights into the connections between autism and genius, but these are best discovered on your own. Read the book—it's quick and engaging, and I promise it will expand your perceptions both of prodigies and of what's possible for autistic kids. Also, we'd love to hear from you in the comments about what you thought of the book, what strengths you see in your autistic kids, and what you're doing to foster them.