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Beyond exceptional: What makes a child prodigy?

By Dyani Lewis

Psychology researcher Dr Joanne Ruthsatz talks about the personality traits that set child prodigies apart from other children.

DYANI LEWIS
I'm Dyani Lewis, thanks for joining us. Who hasn't heard of Mozart and Picasso, not only is their work admired and enjoyed decades, and even centuries after their deaths, but the sheer measure of their talents still astounds us. Part of our enduring fascination with Mozart and Picasso comes from the fact that both were well-recognised child prodigies in their days. Mozart, for example, began composing short piano pieces at the age of just five and by the age of 20 he had amassed an impressive repertoire of symphonies, sonatas, string quartets, violin and piano concertos and a few minor operas. More than most of us, even the musically inclined, are able to accomplish in a lifetime.

Today child prodigies can attract an enormous amount of attention in the media, but what is it that makes a child exceptional? Does talent blossom naturally, or does it require careful coaxing by parents and teachers and are the brains of child prodigies working different to our own? To enlighten us on these issues, my guest today on Up Close is psychologist Doctor Joanne Ruthsatz, who joins us from the studios of Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio. Joanne is Assistant Professor of Psychology at Ohio State University's Mansfield Campus. Welcome to Up Close, Joanne.

JOANNE RUTHSATZ
Thanks for having me.

DYANI LEWIS
Joanne, everyone probably has some concept of what a child prodigy is, but is there a formal definition that you work with?

JOANNE RUTHSATZ
I work with a definition that was first proposed by [David] Feldman who really did the original seminal work that allowed my research to progress. He says that a child prodigy is someone who has reached a professional level of development, or achievement, in a culturally relative domain. Now, your own [Gary] McPherson from Sydney there says that it can go as far as up to adolescence and I agree with that. The other thing that I'd like to add is no matter of the age what really defines a child prodigy is their exponential growth pattern.

DYANI LEWIS
So is there a difference between a child prodigy and a child who is classified as gifted?

JOANNE RUTHSATZ
Definitely, there's a definite difference. There's been so little research up until very recently on the underpinnings of what's going on with child prodigies that we didn't know what the difference was, but now we have some data and we know that they have, each and every one of them, extraordinary memories. We know that they have extreme attention to detail and also that we now have a new find that they are sharing genetic etiology with individuals with autism.

DYANI LEWIS
Right, so in terms of meeting these children, you've studied a number of child prodigies, could you give us an idea of what they're like? What are some of the skills that they have?

JOANNE RUTHSATZ
Well, they all have exceptional memories. They're also very engaging. You don't see any of the deficits that you would see in an individual who had a full diagnosis of autism. However, in my first group of prodigies that I published a paper on, three of the eight in that particular paper had an early diagnosis of autism, which they grew out of. Well, people don't really grow out of autism. So we see the deficits are being held back and the talent that is sometimes associated with autism, such as in autistic savants, just shining through.

DYANI LEWIS
So some of the normal development milestones, like walking and talking are being met, but other things are also cropping up that are quite unusual?

JOANNE RUTHSATZ
Some of them talk extremely early. I've had parents report their child starting talking at three months, talking in sentences by nine months, reading which is not unusual for someone also who has Asperger's at two years of age. You don't see that in a gifted population, in an individual who is not sharing, I don't believe, ideology with autism.

DYANI LEWIS
So gifted just really means a high intelligence in general? Is that the difference that we’re talking about?

JOANNE RUTHSATZ
Most people would say that when we're talking about a gifted individual academically, that their IQ is about at the 130 mark, where the normal is at 100. But be aware, some of my child prodigies IQs are just at 100, although their average is at 120, which is the normal population average for gifted. It's not the driving force; their general intelligence is at or above normal. Some of them are profoundly gifted with IQ, but not all of them. That is not the driving force behind their exceptional achievements.

DYANI LEWIS
And is it usually a narrow set of skills? When we think of a child prodigy, we think of a five year old playing a piano concerto or something like that. Is it music and that sort of thing that is the predominant area that a child can be a prodigy in, or is it a range of things?

JOANNE RUTHSATZ
Most prodigies fall in art, music, mathematics or chess. Interestingly, autistic savants fall in art, music and math also. Most child prodigies are single domain events, but some of my child prodigies, not many of them, do switch domains and are equally as good in a second domain as they are in the first.

DYANI LEWIS
So can you give us an example of that happening?

JOANNE RUTHSATZ
Sure. I had a child prodigy who started actually on the computer at 18 months, so he has a very visual spatial ability. He can program computers by three. He can then reproduce very complicated pieces of music at five, such as the Entertainer, after one or two hearings. Then he goes on to be a culinary child prodigy and he's been featured all over the world. He started cooking at nine, decided he wanted to cater events in a very upscale location in the United States. And he catered, at 10, with a staff, over, I think, over 15 events that summer, mostly for charity work. One of the things about my child prodigies that hasn't been talked about a lot is that they have a very benevolent side to them.

DYANI LEWIS
So that seems to be quite in contrast to the stereotype that is often associated with child prodigies that, perhaps, because of their exceptional skills their relationships with other people can suffer. So that's actually an incorrect stereotype.

JOANNE RUTHSATZ
They're very empathetic. I had a child prodigy the mother reported, who said at three years of age if we would eat further down the food chain, there would be enough food in this world for everyone. She said, what could I say? We became vegetarians. What three years old even thinks of that?

DYANI LEWIS
So some of the prodigies you've worked with you've also met as adults. So do they grow up as well-adjusted individuals?

JOANNE RUTHSATZ
Well, I've been at this for 15 years, so it's not long enough to say for sure. But at this point in time the very first child prodigy that I did 15 years ago was six years old at the time and he has just received on national television a very prestigious music award. So I'd say he's doing great.

DYANI LEWIS
Now, when you or I want to become proficient at a particular skill, we really get better when we practice more, that's the heart of what we need to do. How do we know that these kids aren't just putting in extra hours to reach the high level sooner than the rest of us do?

JOANNE RUTHSATZ
Well, they do; I mean they do practice incessantly and I'm not going to discount that. They are self-motivated; they have a very obsessive interest in their talent. However, even if I practised at that level, I could never do what they do. One of the best studies was done in chess where there's objective criteria. For you know what level you're at in music, it's a little bit more subjective, in art it's a little more subjective, but in chess when you reach Grandmaster is very objective. They watched child prodigies compared to other children and the child prodigies played fewer games to reach higher levels and then one of them went on to be the world champion. So it's different.

DYANI LEWIS
I'm Dyani Lewis and you're listening to Up Close. In this episode we're talking about child prodigies with psychologist, Doctor Joanne Ruthsatz. Joanne, you use the Stanford-Binet Full Scale Intelligence test to assess the prodigies you've worked with. What different aspects of intelligence does this test measure?

JOANNE RUTHSATZ
Well, we get a Full Scale IQ that is really developed from many sub-tests. So we take a look at their ability to tell us the definition of vocabulary words. We look at their visual-spatial skills, their short term or working memory skills, their mathematical abilities. There's many sub-tests and we do it both verbally with verbal tests and what we call a non-verbal test. So if language is an issue - in other words, for someone who has autism they may not have great language skills, but their performance maybe just fine on the non-verbal section.

DYANI LEWIS
And from the outside I guess anyone looking a child prodigy would imagine that they have a very high IQ, but you said that some of your child prodigies don't actually have a high IQ?

JOANNE RUTHSATZ
Actually the range, now that I have 29 child prodigies, goes from 100 to right at the top of the chart. I think we're at 152 for the highest and the Stanford-Binet I use only goes to 160. And so some of them are profoundly gifted, as far as general IQ goes, and some of them are average. But the average for them as a group at this point is 128, which is in the gifted range.

DYANI LEWIS
So are there different things, like in those sub-scales then, where prodigies consistently do very well?

JOANNE RUTHSATZ
Yes, they all are at or above the 99 percentile for working memory.

DYANI LEWIS
And what is working memory?

JOANNE RUTHSATZ
Well, working memory is the ability for me to say a list of anything, any categorical list or non-categorical, and then have you report them back to me, but have to work with that information before you repeat it back. So let me give you an example that I've used. I went through a series of states randomly. I pointed out 28 states and then I said I want you to repeat only the ones that were yellow, in yellow boxes, the state was coloured yellow and then give me the red ones. So now they had to take the information, it's not just a serial call back, but they have to manipulate that information and remember just the yellows and the order they came in and then just the states that were in red and then just the states that were in grey.

DYANI LEWIS
That's pretty impressive for 28 different individual pieces of information?

JOANNE RUTHSATZ
Yes; yes, it is.

DYANI LEWIS
And I guess that explains why some of these kids can listen you know to a piece of music and then replicate it almost perfectly on one listening.

JOANNE RUTHSATZ
Yes. Yes, they have extreme attention to detail. Also it is one of the categories that I test for using what's called the Autistic Spectrum Quotient that Baron-Cohen developed and attention to detail. One of the prodigies explained it like this. I said tell me about how it is that you work with what you see in the world - she was an artist. She said, well, you see that shadow on the hydrant over there, which I hadn't even noticed - the hydrant. I'm like okay; I see the shadow on the hydrant. She said I'll remember that. I'll remember how that shadow fell on that hydrant and then if I want to pull it back up I'll just be able to reproduce it on a two-dimensional canvas.

DYANI LEWIS
That's impressive.

JOANNE RUTHSATZ
It is impressive.

DYANI LEWIS
You mentioned that some of these kids had received a diagnosis of autism early in their life, is that one of the things that made you think, well, maybe I should test these kids on the Autism Spectrum Quotient?

JOANNE RUTHSATZ
No. You hit my favourite story of all times. My very first child prodigy, when I went down there, I thought I was going to get this huge IQ. Well, he had a nice little IQ, if I'm remembering right it was 132, which is gifted, but it wasn't until I hit the working memory that it was off the charts. I think he had a perfect score. During that time he was only six and he got tired of me. He said, Miss Joanne, I don't want to do this anymore. So I said okay honey, what do you want to do? He said I want to go to McDonalds. I said, well; let me ask your mother. So she said sure, we could go to McDonalds and there we were eating our happy meals when his only maternal cousin walked in, who was severely autistic. And at that point in time I thought, now wait a minute, child prodigies one in five million maybe, maybe one in 10 million; autism maybe one in 100, one in 88.

The fact that they were first cousins really started me to think and so I thought I have to find a way to figure out if they're actually working off the same mechanisms that autistic savants are using and yet not showing the deficits, just the talent.

DYANI LEWIS
In the test that measures children on the autism spectrum, the test measures a number of different things. What are those different aspects of autism that it measures?

JOANNE RUTHSATZ
Right, there's five categories or traits that the Autistic Spectrum Quotient measures. Things like social skills, communication, imagination, repetitive behaviours and attention to detail. So the higher your score the more autistic-like you are for that particular trait. Now, for the child prodigies they don't score like autistic individuals in any of the traits, except for attention to detail where they even score higher than the individuals with autism.

DYANI LEWIS
So then their social skills and their communication skills don't have any of the normal deficits that autistic children have?

JOANNE RUTHSATZ
No, they do not.

DYANI LEWIS
You're listening to Up Close. My guest today is psychologist, Doctor Joanne Ruthsatz and we're talking about what's in the mind of a child prodigy. I'm Dyani Lewis. Joanne, do we know which part of the brain is involved in working memory?

JOANNE RUTHSATZ
People would probably say for procedural memory that there's a great deal of activity in the cerebellum, the part that's in the back. And I would guess that my child prodigies are using their cerebellum the way the rest of us use our normal memories and that that information is being processed and held there. We don't really have any MRIs done yet, but we're working on getting that done. We just - it just all takes time.

DYANI LEWIS
And I guess the fact that some of your child prodigies have very close relations who are autistic, it hints at a genetic component?

JOANNE RUTHSATZ
Yes, it does. I don't think you can train a child prodigy. Often times people like to think that they're being just pushed forward by pushy parents, or teachers and tutors, and it's just not the case. Some people who also talk about child prodigies in the academic literature say that anybody could be a child prodigy if they started young enough and had the right training, but that's not true. And surely, about half of my prodigies come from families that have no affiliation with their particular domain-specific skills.

DYANI LEWIS
In terms of pinning down what that genetic difference is, how do you go about doing that?

JOANNE RUTHSATZ
Well, at this point we know what chromosome, the gene, or the specific location where the child prodigies share etiology with their autistic relatives. We need to go further and do a nucleotide by nucleotide search to see if we can identify a protein or proteins, or a gene or genes that are modifying the autism in the hope of helping children with autism and other disabilities.

DYANI LEWIS
Do you think that it might be a combination of different genes? I mean given how rare child prodigiousness is, it sort of seems like there must be a few things coming together all at once?

JOANNE RUTHSATZ
Actually when I gave this talk in New York City, there was as very famous man, Jim Watson, actually asked - yeah, who was in the audience, made me a nervous wreck - came up and said to me, you're right about this. And he thought - he said it's only going to be one gene, or maybe two, that's it.

DYANI LEWIS
Jim Watson, Nobel Prize for discovery of the DNA helix.

JOANNE RUTHSATZ
Yeah, and he also believes it's not just going to be helpful for individuals with autism, but people with other disabilities too. He thinks that the way the disability or the gene abnormality expresses itself, the path it takes, maybe different given the other genetic makeup people have. And so he thinks it may help not only with autism, but maybe with schizophrenia too.

DYANI LEWIS
Now, it might be a long shot, but is there any way that we can improve our own working memory at all?

JOANNE RUTHSATZ
People seem to be successful with improving their working memory in a specific domain. So if you wanted to memorise - I don't know - the states, you could work on that. We have not seen a lot of transfer across domains. So memorising, I don't know, how to do one procedure, such as memorising a musical piece, doesn't seem to transfer into memorising states. But you know, there are tricks, there's mnemonics, where you can improve your memory, but you have to work on it. Can you make your memory like my child prodigies? I don't think so, not without biological underpinnings, I think they are doing it differently.

DYANI LEWIS
Joanne, thank you for being my guest today on Up Close and telling us about your work on child prodigies.

JOANNE RUTHSATZ
Thanks for having me.

DYANI LEWIS
Doctor Joanne Ruthsatz is Assistant Professor of Psychology at the Ohio State University's Mansfield Campus.

University of Melbourne