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April 05 , 2008

The Prodigy's Cousin

The Family Link Between Autism and Extraordinary Talent


A scientific detective story that explores the lives of child prodigies, traces the root of prodigious skills to autism, and challenges what we know about talent. 

It started with a hunch. Child prodigies have long been a mystery, but, in 1998, psychology professor Joanne Ruthsatz had a chance encounter with a prodigy's autistic cousin and wondered: Could autism be the secret to the prodigy's stunning – almost unbelievable – musical accomplishments?

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That question led Joanne to investigate more than thirty child prodigies. Their stories border on the fantastic: a two-year-old who loved to spell words like "algorithm" and "confederation"; an eight-year-old whose paintings sold for tens of thousands of dollars; a typical 13-year-old who hit his head and woke up a music prodigy.

There were signs of autism almost everywhere. Some had autistic family members; two of the prodigies had autism but "grew out" of it. The prodigies all had extraordinary memories and a keen eye for detail – unsung strengths associated with autism. Recently, Joanne and her team discovered a genetic link between prodigy and autism – confirmation of her long-held hunch and an important piece of the puzzle. 

Her next step is to identify what differentiates the two. The prodigies, intriguingly, possess only the strengths associated with autism – what protects them from its deficits?

Ruthsatz and reporter Kimberly Stephens take us from the mystery of prodigy to the cutting-edge of genetics research where scientists are focused not on those who are sick, but on those who are healthy. Stephens and Ruthsatz challenge our understanding of what makes exceptional talent possible, and explore whether a long-awaited breakthrough in autism treatment may come from an unexpected direction.

From the Hardcover edition.
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