In a separate battery of tests, looking at overall intelligence, the prodigies also scored exceedingly high in "working memory" -- the brain's ability to juggle several pieces of information at a time, in order to get a task done.
But what was most striking, Ruthsatz said, was the prodigies' family and personal histories: Four had a first- or second-degree relative with an autism spectrum disorder, and three had themselves been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder in the past.
"Our findings suggest that child prodigies have traits in common with autistic children, but that something is preventing them from having the deficits associated with autism," Ruthsatz said.
"I think child prodigies may have a genetic modifier that allows them to display the talent without the deficits," she explained.
Ruthsatz acknowledged, however, that this is all speculation for now.
Her team has collected DNA samples from their prodigy group, which now totals 16. They hope to be able to hunt for gene variants that could explain their findings.
Ruthsatz said that could ultimately pave the way for a better understanding of autism, and possibly new drug therapies.
An autism expert not involved in the study was more cautious, though.
The findings are "very interesting," said Dr. Andrew Adesman, chief of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at Steven & Alexandra Cohen Children's Medical Center of New York, in New Hyde Park.
"Of course, we've long known that there are some autistic individuals with extraordinary abilities, and there are people with extraordinary talents who are not autistic," Adesman said.
But both groups are unusual, he noted. "I don't think research on child prodigies is the most fruitful way for furthering our understanding of, and treatment of, autism," Adesman said.
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