The Prodigy’s Cousin

The Family Link Between Autism and Extraordinary Talent

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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 great mystery of science. 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 six-year-old prodigy's stunning—almost unbelievable—musical accomplishments?

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"; a six-year-old painter captivated by Georgia O’Keeffe; a typical 13-year-old who hit his head and woke up a music prodigy.

There were signs of autism 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.

This inspiring story of extraordinary children, determined parents, and a researcher’s startling insight is essential reading for anyone interested in the brain and human potential. It tests our understanding of what makes extreme talent possible, challenges our conception of autism, and explores whether a research breakthrough may come from an unexpected direction.