After a 45-minute helicopter ride over Rome, the artist Stephen Wiltshire drew a vast, 51/2-yard-wide cityscape in striking detail from memory. It was described as “frighteningly right.”
Flo and Kay are identical twin sisters who memorized every question and answer (as well as what the host wore) from every episode of their favorite game show. They have a near-encyclopedic memory for musicians and album release dates.
Richard Wawro was a fantastically prolific artist who often depicted the reflection of light on water. He produced more than 2,453 intricate pictures using multiple layers of crayon before he died at 53.
Each one is a savant. They have what the Wisconsin psychiatrist Darold Treffert has termed an “island of genius” — a spike in aptitude combined with a more general impairment.
These savants all have an autism spectrum disorder, as do around 75% of savants.
Of course, not everyone with autism is a savant, and those with autism can face serious challenges, savants included. Wawro grew agitated if his routine was altered; his family handled most of his daily living needs. Flo and Kay were bullied as children; they have always lived with a relative.
But even apart from those with jaw-dropping savant skills, autism is associated with specific strengths. It’s linked to intense focus, a hawk eye for detail, and excellent pattern recognition.
The connection has become widely recognized. Today even our Silicon Valley geek and absent-minded-professor stereotypes are imbued with an autistic quality.
You might wonder whether autism is essential to some abilities.
As Dr. Hans Asperger, one of the scientists often credited with identifying autism in the 1940s, once wrote: “Able autistic individuals can rise to eminent positions and perform with such outstanding success that one may even conclude that only such people are capable of certain achievements.”
A recent study found that in non-autistic adults, having more autism-linked genetic variants was associated with better cognitive functioning.
Asperger may have been more right than he realized. There’s emerging evidence that some of history’s greatest achievers — child prodigies like Blaise Pascal and Fanny Mendelssohn — may benefit from a hidden link to autism.
Unlike savants, child prodigies don’t typically have autism. But recent research has revealed that they rely on autism-linked traits to rocket to the top of their fields.
The first of these traits is passion. Child prodigies are fervent about their area of expertise. Cooking prodigy Greg Grossman entered the catering business at age 13. As a kid, he requested specialty food items as gifts, wrote about food for school projects, and dragged his mom to food trade shows. He cooked at home; he cooked at friends’ houses; he hounded the chefs in his school cafeteria.
Such passionate interests are also a well-known hallmark of autism. Asperger described a child enraptured with numbers (he loved complicated calculations), a child fascinated by complex machinery (his persistent questions were “impossible to fend off”), and another child enamored with chemistry (he used all his money to fund his experiments). Today these strong, sometimes narrow passions are one of autism’s defining characteristics.
Prodigies have extraordinary working memories. In a 2014 study led by one of us, Dr. Joanne Ruthsatz, a group of 18 child prodigies had an average working memory score almost three standard deviations above the average for the general population.
Dr. Hans Asperger, one of the scientists often credited with identifying autism in the 1940s, once wrote: “Able autistic individuals can rise to eminent positions and perform with such outstanding success that one may even conclude that only such people are capable of certain achievements.”
Reports of astounding memory date from the early days of autism research. Dr. Leo Kanner, the other scientist often credited with first identifying autism in the 1940s, noted that the children he saw often had “excellent memory for events of several years before,” “phenomenal rote memory for poems and names,” and “precise recollection of complex patterns and sequences.” Similar reports — a boy who memorizes movie release dates, another who memorizes train schedules — continue to pop up in autism research and popular reports.
Child prodigies have an uncanny eye for detail. In a 2012 study, Ruthsatz found that the prodigies registered high scores on attention to detail on the Autism-Spectrum Quotient, a self-administered test designed to measure autistic traits. It’s a trait that has been “repeatedly demonstrated” in autism, as described by the autism researcher Simon Baron-Cohen (one of the AQ test developers) and his colleagues.
The hidden link between prodigy and autism stretches beyond a behavioral and cognitive overlap. Many child prodigies have autistic relatives. A small 2015 study suggests that there may even be a genetic link between prodigy and autism. Scientists identified an area on Chromosome 1 where it appears that prodigies and their autistic relatives (but not their non-prodigious, non-autistic relatives) may both have a genetic mutation.
In a way, this link to autism only deepens the prodigy mystery. Autism is notoriously complex and heterogeneous. Many autism-linked genes have been identified. Even the most prevalent of these genetic variants are tied to less than 1% of autism cases. Environmental factors (like in utero exposure to some medications) may also increase the likelihood that an individual will have autism. Still, the behavioral and cognitive overlap between prodigy and autism is striking.
There’s some evidence that a link to autism may also fuel the abilities of the non-prodigious. A recent study led by a University of Edinburgh researcher found that in non-autistic adults, having more autism-linked genetic variants was associated with better cognitive functioning.
The bump in cognitive functioning attributed to these autism-related genes was small. There’s no reason to think that everyone who benefits from it is rocking the world with their intellectual prowess.
Nor does the fact that autism and extreme talent seem to be closely intertwined mean that the challenges of autism are any less real or that autism research and the development of autism supports are any less critical.
But the sometimes obvious, sometimes hidden connection between autism and talent raises an intriguing question: What proportion of humanity’s greatest accomplishments — from complex cityscapes to the Sistine Chapel to the personal computer — are the product of a link to autism?