A new study from Ohio State University and Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus examines the genetics underlying both early exceptional ability and autism spectrum disorders. Child prodigies and people with autism, the scientists discovered, share some of the same genetic variations and these are located on chromosome 1. More work is needed to identify the genes precisely, the researchers say, though if this is achieved, predictive tests to determine whether a baby may become a prodigy or develop autism could be the ultimate result.

In a previous study, researchers found that half of a sample group of child prodigies had a family member or a first- or second-degree relative with a diagnosis of autism. This discovery led to the current study, which began with the researchers enlisting the help of five child prodigies — each had received national or international recognition for a specific skill (such as math or music) — and their families. Between one and five family members related to each of these special children had received a diagnosis on the autism spectrum.

At the outset of the study, the researchers tested the children to confirm their exceptional skills. Next, the researchers took saliva samples from the children, and from between four and 14 family members. After extracting DNA from the saliva, the researchers sequenced the exome — a key segment of DNA containing genes that make proteins. (This less expensive process will be followed up, the researchers say, with full genome sequencing.)

Analyzing the exome sequencing results, the researchers discovered an indication of genetic similarity between the prodigies and their family members with autism: specifically, a shared locus on chromosome 1p31-q21.

“This finding suggests that a locus on chromosome 1 increases the likelihood of both prodigy and autism in these families,” wrote the scientists in their conclusion, though they warn the exact genes or mutations were not uncovered and more work is required to do so.

A Difficult Life

While precocious talent appears to be at least partly determined by genetics, a Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine article suggests the correct family or environmental conditions are also necessary for a prodigy to fully mature her or his special skills. Exceptional talent, after all, requires intensive practice which must be both encouraged and supported. However, such pressures may be too intense for a child and could lead to rebellion or abandonment of the craft.

William James Sidis, an American mathematical prodigy, is an example of someone who decided against the life his parents mapped out for him. Born in 1898, he was reading by the age of 18 months and then authored four books before turning 8. At age 11, he entered Harvard University. Cosmology intrigued him; he was the first person to write about black holes in addition to studying various aspects of the origin and development of the universe. Celebrated as a genius, his life took a nasty turn around 1919. Unable to deal with the media attention and career pressures, he renounced his intellectual work in 1921 and began to make his living by performing menial tasks. At the age of 46, he died of cerebral hemorrhage.

Source: Ruthsatz J, Petrill SA, Li N. Molecular Genetic Evidence for Shared Etiology of Autism and Prodigy. Human Heredity. 2015.