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To Undertand Health Problems, Study Those Who Don't Have Them

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, March 10, 2016

Insights on Autism from Those Who Don’t Have It


Child prodigies—youngsters not yet in their teens who can perform in a demanding field at an adult professional level—are very rare.  There’s Mozart, the physicist Enrico Fermi, Tristan Pang, who started doing high school math at age two, and a few others.  

Prodigies aren’t to be confused with savants, people capable of extraordinary feats in calculation, math, music or art, who often also have autism spectrum disorder or other profound mental disabilities.  Prodigies don’t usually have autism or the social and communication challenges often associated with autism.  But some characteristics overlap, and scientists think studies of prodigies may yield greater understanding of some of the mysteries of autism.

In a New York Times article Joanne Ruthsatz, an assistant professor of psychology at Ohio State University and Kimberly Stephens explain that prodigies and the autistic share a nearly insatiable passion for their area of interest. They also tend to have exceptional working memories and the ability to recall and recite lists thing they have been exposed to in their environments. The authors note autism researcher Simon Baron-Cohen and colleagues say an excellent eye for detail is a “universal feature of the autistic brain.”  And Stephens and Dr. Ruthsatz, who wrote the book The Prodigy’s Cousin: The Family Link Between Autism and Extraordinary Talent,  report that Dr. Ruthsatz found that trait dominant in her 2012 study of prodigies. Dr. Ruthsatz also found that half of the prodigies she studied had a close relative with autism and three prodigies were diagnosed in early childhood with autism they seem to have outgrown.

In a 2015 study published in Hunan Heredity,  Dr. Ruthsatz and colleagues examined DNA of prodigies and their families  and found that both prodigies and their autistic relatives  had a genetic mutation or mutations on Chromosome 1 that their neurotypical relatives did not have.  The sample size was small –five extended prodigy families—but the authors say the results are statistically significant.  The authors say the research suggests prodigies may be children who were at risk for autism but didn’t get it.

Scientists have discovered the existence of resilience genes that seem to protect people high risk for certain diseases from getting the disease. These protective mutations have been found in studies of  people with HIV, heat disease and Type 2 diabetes. Similar research is also being done on early onset Alzheimer’s.     

The National Institute of Mental Health has started the Research Domain Criteria initiative, an effort that focuses on  integrating data from  genetics, cognitive science, behavioral studies and other sources to build a new framework  for brain disorders. The ultimate goal is better diagnosis and treatment of autism in all its many manifestations and other cognitive, behavioral and neurological conditions. 


Leading Organizations to Health- Register Now!

Dear Plexus Friends and Associates,

In a time when healthcare is facing such extraordinary change from every possible direction, you know the tremendous value a complexity perspective brings to leaders of organizational change. By reminding them of the self-organizing nature of human interaction it helps them let go of unrealistic and counterproductive expectations of control and turn instead to curiosity and experimentation. It fosters mindfulness of here-and-now of interpersonal process -- how patterns of thinking and patterns of interacting are being created in each moment and what actions might lead to the emergence of new patterns. And it calls attention to the constraints that might be operative, shaping the possibility space for what kinds of self-organizing patterns are more or less likely to emerge.

You also know from your experience that there’s a big difference between having a useful conceptual perspective and putting that knowledge to work. Effective organizational change requires a deep knowledge of human motivation and behavior, advanced facilitation and communication skills and, underlying all that, an authentic and courageous personal presence to be able to hold the emotional tension of change and help others do likewise.

With co-sponsorship from the Plexus Institute and the University of Rochester, my colleague Diane Rawlins and I conduct an institute on leading organizational change called Leading Organizations to Health that explores and integrates all of these dimensions. It combines complexity with positive psychology, adaptive leadership and other frameworks to offer a uniquely powerful and effective approach to leading change. We’ve recently published an article that describes the program and an outcomes assessment. Our next cohort begins in late April; we’d love to have you join us. Help yourself put your valuable understanding of complexity to its most effective use.

For more information and online registration, please visit or contact me ( you a bright new year of meaning, joy and emergent possibilities!

Tony Suchman
Relationship Centered Health Care


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