Prodigy and Autism Share a Common Genetic Link, Study Finds

Prodigy and Autism Share a Common Genetic Link, Study Finds 150 150 Tiasha Letostak, PhD

Researchers have discovered the first molecular genetic evidence for a shared etiology between prodigy and autism.

A new study published in the journal of Human Heredity last month found that child prodigies share some of the same genetic variations with people who have autism. These findings could help geneticists better understand the molecular genetic underpinnings of autism and prodigy in children.

Christopher Bartlett, PhD, principal investigator for the Battelle Center for Mathematical Medicine in The Research Institute at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, co-authored the paper with Joanne Ruthsatz, PhD, assistant professor of Psychology at The Ohio State University at Mansfield, and collaborator Stephen Petrill, PhD, professor of Psychology at The Ohio State University.

“Dr. Ruthsatz has been working with prodigy families for years and has the largest number of prodigies to study,” says Dr. Bartlett, who is also an associate professor of Pediatrics at The Ohio State University. “She observed that many prodigy families also have one or more persons with autism spectrum disorder, which suggests that a link between the two conditions may exist. Our study is the first genetic study to examine if such a link is present.”

The current accepted definition of a child prodigy is an individual who rises to professional levels of achievement before the age of ten years. Previous studies have shown that although child prodigies may or may not have elevated levels of general intelligence, they do have an exceptional working memory and attention to detail, which is a characteristic that is often shared with persons who have autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Scientific research on prodigy families has been difficult since prodigies are rare: fewer than 20 prodigies have been presented in the scientific literature in the past 100 years. This recent study examined 11 prodigy families to test whether there were molecular genetic similarities between child prodigies and their family members with ASD.

“We examined, at the molecular level, how the chromosomes of family members are passed down through the generations,” Dr. Bartlett explains. “This passing of molecular genetic information across generations was correlated with information on who in the families were prodigies or had autism spectrum disorder.”

Dr. Bartlett and his colleagues found that only one region on a single chromosome jointly affected both prodigy and ASD.

“Our study indicates that yes, there is at least one gene variation — possibly more — that predisposes someone to be either a prodigy or to have autism spectrum disorder, or both,” Dr. Bartlett states. “One hypothesis being considered is that so-called ‘prodigy genes’ may reduce the effect of some ASD genes by giving the developing child additional cognitive skills to aid in compensating for an otherwise altered developmental path.”

Researchers still do not know the exact location of the genetic variant or variants or how those variants impact traits of prodigy or ASD, which is crucial to conduct further biological studies, according to Dr. Bartlett.

“Future work will need to focus on methods that can identify the specific genetic changes responsible for the joint prodigy-autism effect,” says Dr. Bartlett, whose research program is funded by the Ingram Fund for Autism Research and the National Institutes of Health and primarily focuses on the genetics of language impairments in families, including those in conjunction with ASD. “Additionally, we want to learn how big the effect is and to how many other populations these results generalize. Prodigies are rare, so the work is slow-moving, but there is always optimism.”


Ruthsatz J, Petrill SA, Li N, Wolock SL, Bartlett CW. Molecular genetic evidence for shared etiology of autism and prodigyHuman Heredity. 2015 Mar, 73:53-59.

About the author

Tiasha is the senior strategist for Clinical & Research Communications at Nationwide Children's Hospital. She provides assistance to investigators in The Research Institute and clinician-scientists at Nationwide Children’s for internal and external communication of clinical studies, peer-reviewed journal articles, grant awards and research news. She is also the editor-in-chief for Research Now, Nationwide Children's monthly, all-employee e-newsletter for research, as well as a writer for Pediatrics Nationwide.