I don’t know if many people saw the recent article in Time Healthland, reporting on a study of eight child prodigies: kids who displayed amazing virtuosity at music, maths or art from an early age. Here’s a taster:
The authors found that prodigies scored high in autistic traits, most notably in their ferocious attention to detail. They scored even higher on this trait than did people diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome…
Three of the eight prodigies had a diagnosed autism spectrum disorder themselves…. What’s more, four of the eight families included in the study reported autism diagnoses in first- or second-degree relatives, and three of these families reported a total of 11 close relatives with autism. In the general population, by contrast, about 1 in 88 people have either autism or Asperger’s.
You can read the rest here. I expect many will, like me, and rejoice in reading a positive story about autism, or at very least autistic traits. It’s important to note that these child prodigies differ from autistic savants in the respect they are quite functional in other aspects of their lives— in essence, they got the good bits of autism without the downsides.
Interestingly, when researchers tested the prodigies they found,in general, they didn’t have particularly high IQs (as one might have predicted). They did, however, have exceptional working memory scores.
Working memory is the mind’s workspace— ‘the system that holds information active in the mind, keeping it available for further processing.’ One friend recently described it as our brain’s RAM.
Working memory capacity predicts fluid intelligence—the ability to reason quickly and to think abstractly—and executive functioning— the many tasks our brains perform that are necessary to think, act, and solve problems—as well as reading comprehension and language acquisition. In summary it’s pretty important.
Previously researchers thought our working memory capacity was fixed, but recent studies have found that we can improve our working memory capacity through targeted training programs. Some studies conducted in children with ADHD and related conditions have shown flow-on effects from training, such as reduced ADHD symptoms, improved following of classroom instructions and even better maths scores. A handful of early neuroimaging studies have also detected training-related improvements in nerve connectivity within brain regions—exactly the sort of connections that are thought to be impaired in autism spectrum disorders. The research is in its early stages, and not all study results have been positive, but overall working memory training programs show genuine promise.
At the start of the year I mentioned my intention to get Joe to do the working memory training program, Cogmed. As someone who is a strong believer in both a) evidence-based treatments and b) the potential of neuroplasticity, Cogmed and I seemed a match made in heaven.
Well, I did sign Joe up and he completed the computer-based training—30-40 minutes a day, five days a week for five weeks—over April/ May. Each day he was required to complete 15 trials each of eight working memory-related computer tasks. He particularly liked blowing up the asteroids and bopping the aliens on the head!
During training his ability to perform the working memory tasks increased consistently and dramatically—all well and good, but what about the relevance to his daily life? Our Cogmed Coach advised that there would be a lag of a month or more before we’d notice flow-on effects from the training, and it turned out she was right.
His brothers have recently remarked that “Joe seems to have got smarter”. His occupational therapist, speech therapist and psychologist—not to mention relatives and friends—have also commented on improved attention, conversation and social skills (apparently you even need working memory to follow the flow of a conversation). I can’t remember any short term intervention having such a profound effect on my boy.
Of course, there are caveats. Cogmed was primarily developed for children and adults with ADHD, but as Joe has ADHD along with ASD I thought he fitted the bill. The program is apparently not suitable for children with IQs below 80 and overall about 20% of people who do the training will not respond. Finally, can I say these changes in my boy are definitely the result of Cogmed? No, not with 100% certainty, but the timing suggests the two events are related.
If you’re interested in the bottom line, it cost about $1500 and 5 weeks’ of serious commitment. I think both the time and money were extremely well spent. (By the way, no-one paid me to say this!)
Have you found any wonderful new interventions you wish to share with readers?