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Prodigies May be Autistic

A new study of 8 child prodigies suggests a possible link between these children's special skills and autism. Of the prodigies studied, 3 had a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder.

In addition, half of the prodigies had a family member or a first- or second-degree relative with an autism diagnosis, suggesting that autism is at least partly genetic. It could also be an indication that autism is a form of evolution.

The fact that half of the families and three of the prodigies themselves were affected by autism is surprising because autism occurs in only one of 120 individuals. Psychologist Joanne Ruthsatz says, "The link between child prodigies and autism is strong in our study. Our findings suggest child prodigies have traits in common with autistic children, but something is preventing them from displaying the deficits we associate with the disorder." Could this be the one gene, two gene theory? The answer may be some genetic mutation that allows prodigies to have the extreme talent found in savants, but without the deficits seen in autism.

The study also found that while child prodigies had elevated general intelligence scores, where they really excelled was in working memory--all of them scored above the 99th percentile on this trait. This is vital when it comes to something like memorizing a long piece of music, something that professional musicians--and musical prodigies--must learn to do.

Of the many potential causes of autism, the newest is smog: A new study links an increase in autism in the children of mothers who lived near highways when they were pregnant and thus inhaled car exhaust. This would make autism a big-city phenomenon, but with the majority of Americans now living in cities, this would be hard to determine.

The problem may be the traffic-generated air pollution of particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide.

On the KPCC website, Stephanie O'Neill quotes researcher Heather Volk as saying, "In particular for traffic pollution we found children exposed to [the] highest amount of pollution relative to the lowest were at a two-to-threefold increased risk for autism."

She quotes pediatrician Leslie A. Richard as saying, "So if (women are) pregnant, they may want to stay inside or be away from the open air on days that we have bad pollution."

When it comes to autistic prodigies, Ruthsatz says, "These prodigies had an absolutely amazing memory for detail. They don't miss anything, which certainly helps them achieve the successes they have."

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