Making the Connection

Lauren Voiers, a self-taught, Cleveland, Ohio-based visual artist and painter, has established herself as an internationally recognized artist—at the age of 20. She is considered a prodigy: someone with a skill set or an ability that is incredibly accomplished, far beyond her years.

“I didn’t know if I was a child prodigy, but I hoped I was,” said Voiers. “I admired kids I saw on TV who were gifted and I wanted to be like them. Art has always been an obsession with me.”
Recognized as an art prodigy since she was in grade school, Voiers is the rarest of painting prodigies—mastering several styles ranging in variety from cubism and surrealism, to American traditionalism.

What is also rare is Voiers’ family history. She has several biological first-degree relatives with autism spectrum disorders, raising the question of whether there is a genetic link between autism and prodigy.

Joanne Ruthsatz, assistant professor of psychology at Ohio State’s Mansfield campus and a member of the Department of Psychology’s integrative neuroscience group, has set out to find the answer.

Joanne Ruthstaz and Lauren Voiers.

Joanne Ruthstaz and Lauren Voiers

Ruthsatz recently discussed her research with Morley Safer of 60 Minutes, on Sunday, January 15, 2012.

“Not all child prodigies are autistic,” says Ruthsatz. “However, they are highly reliant on a similar set of skills as autistic savants.”
Ruthsatz began working with prodigies in 2003. She is currently tracking the lives of nine prodigies, ranging in age from six to 34 years old and accomplished in the fields of music, art, physics, and mathematics.

Over half of the child prodigies have one or more than one biological first- or second-degree relative with autism-spectrum disorder, and all of them scored higher than average on the Autism-Spectrum Quotient (AQ) survey and significantly higher in attention to detail on the same survey.

The AQ is designed to evaluate the presence of autistic traits in individuals with normal intelligence. Previous research supports the AQ as a reliable and valid predictor of autistic traits found in the biological relatives of individuals with autism.

Nine case studies do not generally constitute a large population, until you consider the pool of prodigies in the country. There are estimated to be only 30 to 50 prodigies in the U.S.

“Prodigies are so rare,” explained Ruthsatz. “Child prodigies are diagnosed one in 10 million in the United States whereas autism-spectrum disorders are diagnosed in one in 110 children in the United States.”

Until Ruthsatz began her study, much of what we know about prodigies came from observations of clinicians; case studies of prodigies were descriptive, not quantitative by nature. Ruthsatz is probing the prodigy mind from the inside, using tools like gene mapping and fMRI scans, and she has amassed the only cognitive data on prodigies available.

While investigating her first case study, a 6-year-old musical prodigy, Ruthsatz discovered that the young prodigy had a biological second-degree relative with autism spectrum disorders.

“It was truly an eye-opening moment for me, when I first began to suspect that there might be a genetic link,” said Ruthsatz.
In furthering her investigation of the possible link between prodigies and autism, Ruthsatz administered the AQ to the biological first-degree relatives of individuals with autism spectrum disorders, the biological first-degree relatives of child prodigies, and the biological relatives of children without documented disabilities.

What she discovered was that the biological first-degree relatives of individuals with autism and the first-degree relatives of child prodigies scored significantly higher in attention to detail.

What is the Next Step?

“I am working with several researchers to compare the DNA between child prodigies and children with autism who have a savant skill,” said Ruthsatz. “If we can isolate the gene it can revolutionize our treatment for autism and other cognitive impairments along the autism spectrum.”

Voiers is one of the prodigies working with Ruthsatz who has volunteered to be part of a DNA test.

She is emphatic about wanting to be a part of helping find a treatment for her relatives who struggle with autism. “If I can contribute to helping them and others with autism, then I’ll do whatever I can.”

Ruthsatz also hopes that her research with prodigies will change the way that society thinks about them.

She is all too familiar with how popular culture portrays prodigies and is determined to set the record straight.

“Prodigies are portrayed as eccentric, socially awkward misfits pushed too hard by overbearing parents but that just isn’t the case.”

“They’re more mature than most, but in many ways they are just like their contemporaries. Most importantly, they love what they do and their passion is what propels them forward.”

Finding Peace

Lauren Voiers artwork.In 2009, Voiers came up with an idea for a painting about the concept of world peace.

“Art has the power to change things for the better,” said Voiers. “I want my art to contribute to humanity’s progression and the way people think.”

She decided to incorporate a musical theme into her creation to reflect music as a common denominator among all people of the world. She named her painting Peace and Harmony.

Later, Voiers was asked to make the painting into a sculpture as part of the Global Peace Initiative, a project to erect seven distinct monuments, one on each continent, symbolizing the efforts of mankind to create a non-violent world of peace and harmony. The sculpture eventually evolved into an 18-foot tall metal and glass monument that was unveiled to the world in October 2010, on what would have been John Lennon’s 70th birthday.

“I love making art because I know what my purpose is—to beautify the world and encourage people to be kind to others,” said Voiers.

As a mark of the true impact of Voiers’ work, John Lennon’s son, Julian, asked Voiers to incorporate a white feather within the design of the Peace and Harmony sculpture, as a symbol of John Lennon’s spirit and of world peace.

Voiers and Ruthsatz are teaming up to produce a series of children’s illustrated picture books. The first in the series, Kate and the Grand Adventure, is due out next year. Voiers will be providing the illustrations for the book.