Friday, July 21, 2017

Book Review: The Prodigy's Cousin

The Prodigy's Cousin: The Family Link Between Autism and Extraordinary Talent, by Joanne Ruthsatz and Kimberly Stephens.

Somewhat of a departure from my usual fare, but definitely an interesting read, this book explores the idea that child prodigies and autism are linked, and perhaps even two facets of the same phenomenon.  The focus of the book is very much on the child prodigies, rather than also interviewing autistic individuals with special interests (or "enthusiasms" if you prefer).  But that's the initial bridge between autism and prodigies: the single-minded focus on a subject that allows them to excel.  In autism, that's specifically called a special interest, and I hear parents consider it as much a hindrance as they do a help.  In prodigies, that's their gift, and it's viewed much more positively.

The book's focus makes their group of study very, very small.  There aren't that many known child prodigies.  In fact, this book follows only 11.  I say "only," because while that's a lot of people for a single book, it's a pitifully small sample size for any kind of scientific experiment or study.  The authors don't deny this, pointing it out themselves several times.

They systematically investigate their claim, using the information they have at hand.  This includes facing down the notion that autistic people are devoid of empathy.  Gentle reader, I hope you're rolling your eyes with me about this theory.  But if you're not, and my blog hasn't made it abundantly clear...  I have empathy.  I have a lot of it.  I have theory of mind, and it annoys the tar out of me when people look at me like I'm a broken and potentially dangerous subhuman creature.  Sometimes, it really begs the question of who should be investigated for lack of empathy...

My kvetching aside, these authors push the Intense World theory, or the theory that autistic people do not lack empathy, but instead have too much of it, and other senses.  The world is too loud, too bright, too fast, and overwhelmingly emotional, hence "Intense World."  Some of this can be blamed on sensory processing disorders... but I also read somewhere that outcasts and people who don't fit in very well tend to have more empathy than people that do fit in.  And that can make other peoples' emotions overwhelming.  You'd want to hide in your room all day too, if you had to suffer your emotions on 100x magnification and others' emotions too.

The Intense World theory, then, hypothesizes that autistic people are overwhelmed by all the light and sound and emotional fury, and to stay sane and regulated, we withdraw from life and shut down.  I find this highly accurate.  While I'm partly shielded by my incredible lack of visual processing efficiency, I find others' emotions very trying and difficult, never mind my own.

An example would be a funeral I went to relatively recently.  It was for Chris' grandmother, a lady I'd met perhaps five times in the entirety of my life.  She was very gracious to me and gave me a very nice pair of slipper-socks, and she liked tea.  And that sentence describes pretty much everything I knew about her going into that funeral.  So not exactly a strong emotional connection.  I went to the funeral to support Chris, and especially his mother and the family.  It was a nice service, which I spent sitting quietly and listening to the proceedings... until the Family Remembrances section came up.  Most of her surviving children had a turn at the microphone, and while only one of them was having to talk through tears the entire time, I basically just sat there and sprouted tears and boogers because of all the pain I was hearing.  I literally cried my way through all but maybe 5 minutes of the family remembrances section.

I was, suffice it to say, mortified.  Other than the people speaking at the microphone and the daughter closest to the deceased grandmother, no one near me was crying very hard.  Except me.  I commented later, sheepishly, that sometimes having autism is like having no skin.  I have no real ability to shut out or filter other peoples' pain in situations like that, so I just suffer and feel awkward and bad while I do it.  But sure, people, you go ahead and believe I don't have empathy.

Speaking of me being crabbity, this book also kind of grumped me out.  I've not seen the statistics, but a percentage of people on the autism spectrum do not have a special interest or drive to master a particular subject.  I am one of those people.  I have skills and talents, yes, but nothing singular that I truly excel at.  In this age of uncertainty, where people can and do search for years for a job they can enjoy and make living with... it's envy-inducing to know that people like me discover a true and abiding calling in their lives.  At least at the time, they seem to have few doubts about the trueness of that calling, and if they're young enough, the unusualness of it is enough to bring the money and publicity out of the woodwork.  And in all prodigy stories listed here, that was very much the case.

The rest of us, myself included, have no such luck and have to find what things we like and can tolerate slowly, painfully, and sometimes even unsuccessfully.  The idea that I might've been a few genes off from early artistic greatness, or scientific excellence, or something similar, and not have had to spend a decade or more trying to figure out what I'm good at and like doing... is really frustrating.

My last side comment on this book is in reference to another oddity of prodigy children, and a supposed difference between them and autistic people.  The book terms it "the mystery of prodigy benevolence," referring to the tendency of child prodigies to work on the behalf of others, even non-family, using their talents and networking capabilities.

I don't find this phenomenon particularly mysterious.  Child prodigies are children.  They've found something they truly love doing, which is then, in these stories, supported and praised by their families and those they love.  When money and praise starts rolling in, they're still kids.  They haven't necessarily been introduced to the fear-frenzied demon called greed, and their own needs are satisfied.  So why not help others?  It seems simple enough to me.

Someone once said: the grand essentials of happiness are: something to do, something to love, and something to hope for.  They have something to do (their fields of study), something to love (their families, friends, their work), and something to hope for (advancement in their field of study, the ability to meet more people, growing up, etc).  Is it really so surprising to people that these children display such benevolence?

Anyway, in the end, the book doesn't make a definitive link between autism and child prodigies.  It does paint a compelling picture, though, and if the 42 page long list of references is anything to go by, a reasonably well-cited one.  If nothing else, it's an interesting take on autism and its potential benefits.

Read This Book If

You have an interest in child prodigies, or want to read an interesting theory regarding them.  This book is well written and engaging, but is definitely not a self-help book or a cookbook for making your child a prodigy.  Rather, it's a set of slice-of-life stories woven together with scientific research and theory regarding the subject. 

1 comment:

  1. When I was young people thought I was really smart. It wasn't until 4th grade that people realized I was of normal intelligence and even sub par at math. I couldn't grasp multiplication.

    There are two films on child prodigies that are amazing. The first is Little Man Tate which is where my alias lepton comes from. The second one is Magnolia. They are both handle the story of child prodigies differently but worth a watch.