A difficult encounter.
My first encounter with autism was in the United States. A friend’s brother who was about 19 years old had the condition. He could barely do anything by himself. He had to be dressed up and be supervised almost on everything including having a meal. It was difficult for me to comprehend how an adult could be so uncoordinated and helpless. The scary part was that the chap could become violent without warning especially when in the midst of many people.
What is autism?
It is a severe neurodevelopmental disorder that impairs interaction and communication. People with autism find it difficult to talk or process social cues and make friends. They may be either withdrawn or restless. The condition can be mild, moderate or severe. Collectively, the various forms are now classified as autism spectrum disorder, or ASD.
Autism cum prodigy
The interesting question over the years has been whether some forms of autism can and do confer special intelligence on sufferers or make them prodigies.
One of the symptoms of autism is sufferers’ obsession with a particular thing which they often prefer to do repeatedly.
This condition is related to what numerologists call weak central coherence. In other words, while a regular mind constantly synthesizes the millions of processes going on inside of it to make or reach decisions, an autistic mind ignores “all that commotion” to zero in on a particular part of the mind’s functionality and connect it with another to make outstanding discoveries. Hans Asperger, the Austrian pediatrician who discovered autism described this phenomenon as “autistic intelligence.”
The case of Jacob Barnett (USA)
Born in 1998, Jacob had a moderate to severe autism. At the age of two, he stopped talking. His parents were told that he may never talk, read, or even be able to lace his shoes.
Though he was put in a special education school and subjected to intensive speech, physical, occupational and development therapy to resuscitate his social and communication skills, Jacob did not show any sign of improvement. In fact, his condition became worse and was heading for a complete shutdown.
Jacob and his family (img.Tim Anderson)
However, Jacob’s parents noticed that their son seemed to be obsessed with shapes and patterns while at home and away from the coterie of special education experts and that made him, rather strangely, relaxed and happy.
Against experts’ advice, Jacob was pulled out of special education school and tutored at home, allowing him to do the things he wanted to do which were drawing and solving puzzles and mathematical problems.
Remarkably, at the age of three, Jacob began speaking again and within a short period of being exposed to audio language classes at home, he picked up speaking four languages without anybody’s assistance. On a trip to a planetarium (a place where representations of planetary systems are displayed) while still about three years old, Jacob startled everyone when he put up his hand and answered a complicated astrophysics question that was meant for visiting college students. He had been reading books on the subject on his own. It dawned on everyone that Jacob was light years ahead not just of his peers but even of adults.
Jacob and his friends
When Jacob returned to start regular primary school, he constantly complained of being bored. So, arrangement was made for him to take secondary school subjects. Within a year he was done. He was said to have mastered secondary school mathematics in just two weeks.
At ten, Jacob was officially enrolled at the University of Indianapolis, graduating at 14. He is currently doing his PHD in Quantum physics and travelling around the world doing research, granting interviews and engaging in motivational speeches to help demystify the study of mathematics and science.
Jacob is already breaking new grounds in Physics and he is widely expected to win a Nobel prize some day. Experts believe that he has a higher IQ than Albert Einstein.
The prodigy advises students to stop learning and start thinking and creating by looking at things through their own perspectives.
Asked what he felt about being autistic in an interview with American TV network, CBS, Jacob said he was proud to be autistic.
Joan, a Professor at Ohio State University who has studied prodigies for over a decade said that there is a link between autism and prodigious children, and that some child prodigies are either autistic or have relatives that are autistic.
According to Psychology Today,
“One in every 88 children in the United States is diagnosed with autism. Four out of the eight prodigies in the current study had family members who either had an autism diagnosis or had a first- or second-degree relative with an autism diagnosis”
Historically, it has been revealed that autistic intelligence often produces prodigies in music, painting, mathematics, physics or any genre of complex scientific knowledge.
Mr. Asperger, the man who discovered autism said,
“the presence of a dash of autism is essential to be successful in science or art.
Do you have an autistic child? Are you just concerned about his disability or are you paying some attention to what else that may be dwelling in him?
It is not that all autistic children are prodigious. But you must look closely to find out if your autistic child is displaying “autistic intelligence or an island of genius” before it is all gone with the wind. Some experts believe that when such intelligence is not harnessed before age 11, it might be lost.
Data of children with autism in Nigeria is not readily available. However, most local experts on the condition I have heard on radio and television hardly mention the unbelievable gift that may come with it.
According to some sources, autistic children with even very low IQs may still be incredibly talented in certain skills. The challenge is for parents, not necessarily expects, to discover what these skills may be.