Children With Autism: Prodigies or Developmentally Disabled?

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: Fifth Edition, reports the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), defines the diagnostic criteria for autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Today, approximately 1 in 68 children are diagnosed with autism, and a recent article in the New York Times, “What Prodigies Could Teach Us About Autism,” has reinvigorated the discussion on autism and child prodigies.

Since this topic is often brought up, but usually not understand, HHS training needs to include an explanation of this connection. This explanation must include how diagnostic criteria relates to prodigy-like behaviors, why early intervention is still needed for child prodigies with autism, and how children with autism may exhibit signs and symptoms of being developmentally disabled in other aspects of life.


DSM-5 Diagnostic Criteria and Prodigy-Like Behaviors

Diagnostic criteria for autism is best explained as an assessment of missed milestones and breakdown of effects into a hierarchical structure. In order for a child to receive an autism diagnosis, “persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction across multiple contexts must be exhibited,” explains the CDC. These deficits may range in social, emotional value.

For example, a child with autism may follow an abnormal approach to social interaction, fail to engage in conversation, refuse to appear interested in events, or be unable to exhibit emotional feelings or expression. A child with autism may also experience deficits in nonverbal communication, which may include being unable to verbally express feelings, create typical nonverbal communication in forms of artistic expression, or exhibit a total lock official expression.

Physicians diagnose autism further by specifying the severity of the illness on the basis of how restrictive, repetitive patterns of behavior appear in the present and by reviewing the child’s developmental history. Children with autism may become focused on a single task.

For example, a child with autism may become heavily involved in memorization of specific data sets, which may range from statistical and mathematical functions to historic data. In other words, children with autism may find themselves in a pattern of intense cravings and yearning for more knowledge about a specific subject.

As autism relates to child prodigies, researchers term children with inordinate talent as savants, asserts a study by Allan Snyder. In this study, researchers were able to use low-frequency repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (low-frequency rTMS) to clinically induce savant-like behaviors in adults with autism. However, similar results were seen in adults without autism.

As a result, researchers believe part of the child prodigy exhibition in children with autism revolves around how the brain processes information through the subconscious. The magnetic stimulation in the study is comparable to inducing autism-like thought patterns. Essentially, a non-autistic child formulates hypotheses on the basis of known information and concepts, but those with autism are able to go beyond the boundaries of “conceptualized” thinking to arrive at a definitive, savant-like conclusion. Similar research supports this belief in a Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders’ article, “Prevalence of Clinically and Empirically Defined Talents and Strengths in Autism.”


The Continuing Importance of Early Intervention

HHS training programs often emphasize the importance of early intervention in minimizing the long-term effects of autism on social skills. Early-intervention therapies, available through the US Department of Education, may be obtained before a formal autism diagnosis is made. As a result, children with autism can begin the process of minimizing developmental delays immediately.

Some may argue early-intervention therapies may inhibit an autistic child’s prodigy-like characteristics. However, the fundamental symptoms of autism appear more likely to result in prodigy-like, if not savant, characteristics, regardless of treatment. This is due in part to the repetitive behaviors of autistic children, but fine tuning social skills will help autistic children share their talents with peers, family members, and children’s behavioral health specialists.


Exhibition of Developmental Disabilities in Other Aspects of Life

Developmental delays in autism may not be as obvious as some would think. For example, the following situations, as given by Autism Speaks™, may occur:

  • Language skills may take additional time to develop, and children with autism may exhibit an inappropriate understanding of communication. In other words, the child, adolescent, or adult may continue on a conversation without allowing the other party to respond.
  • Developmental delays may result in or co-occur with genetic disorders, seizure disorders, gastrointestinal disorders, sleep disorders, sensory processing disorders, or even Pica (eating unusual, non-food items).

Unfortunately, autism does not currently have any known cure, and those with autism must live with the challenges of the disorder until studying this link lends more information to parents, children, and health professionals. However, some of the side effects and symptoms of autism, such as hyperactivity, attention deficits, anxiety, insomnia, and other issues, may be managed with medication treatment.


Next Steps

Around the globe, children, adolescents, and adults with autism have been linked to prodigy-like behavior, and plenty of children with autism have been able to create masterpieces in art, solve complex science and mathematics’ problems, and engage in other high-level forms of expression. For behavioral health professionals, a reverse understanding of autism and prodigy-like behavior may help uncover the secrets and potential breakthroughs in the treatment of autism. Yet, the conversation must start with understanding what link exists, how early intervention impacts autism, and how those with autism continue to live with the symptoms and side effects of developmental delays and disorders.

Jason Vanover

Working in health care since 2005, Jason's body of experience encompasses dozens of care settings, including Senior care, psychiatric facilities, nonprofit health service centers, group homes for those with developmental disabilities and beyond. Jason understands the need to tailor his skills to each setting to encourage the best treatment outcomes and promote an inclusive, healing environment.

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