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Extreme Precocity: Prodigies, Savants, and Children of Extraordinarily High IQ

Gifted Research

In this article, types of extremely precocious children are described, compared, and contrasted, and a taxonomy of extreme precocity is presented.

Author: Feldman, D.H. & Morelock, M.J.
Publication: Handbook of Gifted Education, Chapter 35, pp. 455-469
Publisher: Allyn & Bacon
Year: 2003

In this chapter, types of extremely precocious children are described, compared, and contrasted, and a taxonomy of extreme precocity is presented.

The Extremely Precocious Child

The Biblical story of Jesus, who, at the age of 12, astonished the rabbis with his understanding, is perhaps the first recorded allusion to an extremely precocious child.1 It was not until the 1700s that detailed accounts of precocity appeared in what was a developing literature of child psychology (Hollingworth, 1942). The earliest, written in 1726, and later summarized by Barlow (1952), described the child Christian Friedrich Heinecken:

Young Heinecken’s life synopsis suggests an extraordinary ability to absorb and verbalize abstract knowledge. Although he lived before the development of IQ tests, his academic precocity is characteristic of the child of extraordinarily high IQ. But precocity comes in a number of guises. There are, for example, child prodigies whose extraordinary performance in particular fields rival that of highly trained adults. Such was the child musician and composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) who, at the age of six, toured Europe with his father and sister exhibiting his mastery of the violin, piano, and organ (Barlow, 1952; Morelock & Feldman, 1999).

There are also astonishing cases like George and Charles-identical twin calendar calculators (Hamblin, 1966). George at the age of six and Charles at the age of nine could answer spontaneously questions such as, “On what day of the week was your third birthday?” “The year is 31275; on what day of the week will June 6 fall?” Given a date, these twins could give the day of the week over a span of 80,000 years, though their IQs only tested between 40 and 50. Although they could not count to 30, they swapped 20-digit prime numbers for amusement. They could easily factor the number III and remember 30 digits, but could not add.

Heinecken, Mozart, and George and Charles reflect the three major types of extremely precocious children found in the literature. Heinecken exemplifies the child of extraordinarily high IQ; Mozart was a supreme example of the child prodigy; and George and Charles are classified as savants. The sections below examine each of these of variations of extreme precocity.

The Child of Extraordinarily High IQ

To understand the child of extraordinary IQ, it is necessary to understand something about the instrument that first defined and selected such children. Lewis M. Terman’s Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale, first appearing in 1916, extended and revised the 1908 Binet-Simon Scale, devised by the French psychologist Alfred Binet and T. Simon, his physician collaborator. The Binet-Simon Scale identified children who, unable to succeed in Paris public schools, needed special programs. Terman’s scale, however, incorporated an innovation-a definition of human intelligence. He defined intelligence as ability to acquire and manipulate concepts-the symbols necessary for abstract thinking (Terman, 1975). Terman extended the instrument into higher levels of ability in late childhood, thereby paving the way for studies of the gifted (Segoe, 1975). Terman himself began the first broad-scale study of the gifted (Terman, 1925-1959), a longitudinal project following over 1,500 children with IQs of at least 140 into adulthood, middle age, and beyond. Terman’s contemporary, Leta S. Hollingworth (1942), conducted the first in-depth study devoted solely to children of extraordinarily high IQ.

Leta Hollingworth and Children Above IQ 180
Hollingworth (1942) conducted case studies of twelve children (eight boys and four girls) testing above 180 IQ on the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale. She found that, although no one characteristic could be singled out as identifying accelerated development, early talking and reading most clearly differentiated these children from the average. Since the capacity for abstract, symbolic thought that Terman aimed at identifying was chiefly language-based conceptual facility, this is not a surprising finding. Early talking and reading are likely manifestations of high-level verbal-conceptual ability.

Hollingworth identified three major adjustment problems risked by children of above-180 IQ (Witty, 1951). First, they failed to develop desirable work habits in school settings geared to average children’s capacities. In such settings, they spent considerable time in idleness and daydreaming. Consequently, they learned to dislike school. To remedy this, Hollingworth (1942) proposed acceleration through the normal elementary curriculum plus enrichment experiences providing knowledge about cultural evolution as manifested through the development of common things such as clothing, lighting, trains, etiquette, and so forth. She believed that by understanding how things had developed in the past, these children might become innovative thinkers themselves.

A second problem documented by Hollingworth was these children’s difficulty in finding satisfying companionship and their consequent social isolation. While they typically attempted play with others, their efforts commonly failed since age-mates did not share their interests, vocabulary, or desire for more complex activities. Older children might satisfy the extraordinarily gifted child’s need for intellectual rapport, but physically the younger child was at a disadvantage. Thus, Hollingworth believed that these children must be educated for leisure. She espoused games like chess or checkers, which could be enjoyed by people of all ages, potentially assisting in bridging social gaps.

Hollingworth’s research suggested that children of extraordinarily high IQ are unlikely to be accepted as leaders by age-mates. Leaders, Hollingworth (1926) concluded, are likely to be “more intelligent, but not too much more intelligent, than the average of the group led” (p. 131). She believed that beyond IQ 160, children have little chance of being popular leaders in a regular school setting. To develop leadership skills, such children needed to be placed in special classes with others like themselves.

Emotional vulnerability was a third problem documented by Hollingworth. These children are able to understand and grapple with major philosophical and ethical issues before they are emotionally ready to do so. Hollingworth cautioned that adults must deal patiently with such vulnerabilities to avoid engendering lifelong emotional problems, concluding, “To have the intelligence of an adult and the emotions of a child combined in a childish body is to encounter certain difficulties” (Hollingworth, 1942, p. 282).

Children of Extraordinarily High IQ in Australia
It was 50 years after Hollingworth’s research before another systematic in-depth study devoted to extraordinarily high IQ children appeared in the literature. Australian researcher Miraca U. M. Gross (1993) published research documenting the academic, social, and emotional development of fifteen children scoring at lQ 160+ in the eastern states of Australia. The group consisted of ten males and five females ranging in age from five years, three months, to thirteen years, five months. Only four of the children-all males-scored 175+ on the Stanford-Binet L-M, suggesting they were on a par with Hollingworth’s children. Three of the children attained IQ scores of 200 or higher, prompting Gross to publish detailed individualized case studies about them (Gross, 1992). (Only one of Hollingworth’s children had attained an IQ score of 200.) Gross looked at physical and psychosocial development, school history, and family characteristics. She collected results of achievement tests in reading, mathematics, and spelling. Many of the issues reported by Gross-for example, the trials of negotiating appropriate. educational experiences and emotional and social difficulties stemming from inappropriate placements–echoed those first documented by Hollingworth.

An interesting aspect of this study is the use of psychosocial assessment instruments. Gross’s use of the Coopersmith Self-Esteem Inventory (Coopersmith, 1981)levealed scores on the social self-peers subscale significantly below the mean of typical age-peers. The children’s awareness that they were rejected and disliked by age-mates caused self-concept problems. Administration of Rest’s (1986) Defining Issues Test (DIT), a test of moral judgment based on Kohlberg’s stages of moral development, showed that these children exhibited accelerated levels of moral development. On questions of moral or ethical significance, the eight children to whom it was administered (ranging in age from ten to thirteen) resembled junior high, high school, or college students. 2

Children of Extraordinarily High IQ in the Family Context: Families with Children Above 200 IQ
Morelock’s (1994, 1995) in-depth study of extraordinarily high IQ children viewed these children from a developmental perspective. This research looked not only at child characteristics of mentality and personality, but also at the families giving rise’ to such extraordinary children. The investigation included some, of the most profoundly gifted children, in IQ terms, ever studied. All of the children had IQ’s of 180+; six had IQ scores well above 200. The children ranged from five through eleven years of age at the time of the interviews, and included seven boys and one girl. One child, Michael Kearney, boasted the distinction of being, at age ten, the youngest person ever to have graduated from college (Kearney & Kearney, 1998; Morelock, 1995). Another, at the age of eight years, four months, achieved a score of 760 out of a possible 800 on the math portion of the SAT, winning the distinction of attaining the highest score for that test ever recorded at such an early age. One of Gross’s (1993) subjects had set the former record, achieving the same score at the age of eight years, ten months. Only 1 % of college-bound seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds in the United States attain a score of 750 or more. A third child and the only female in Morelock’s group-an 11-year-old writing prodigy-wrote poetry rivaling that of professionals, not only in mastery and creative use of language, but also in her extraordinary spiritual, mystical, and psychological insights (Morelock, 1995).

The study examined family environment and trans generational influences (Feldman & Goldsmith, 1986; Morelock, 1988, 1994, 1995). Additionally, the study looked at the phenomenological realities of the children and families through interviews with family members and individuals outside the family who had close interactions with the focus child (teachers, members of the extended families, psychologists, etc.). Aspects of family environment were assessed through the Moos Family Environment Scale (FES; Moos & Moos, 1994). Some intriguing trends emerged:

  1. Family values and themes traced over the generations revealed themselves not only in parental child-rearing patterns, but even in children’s language and mode of thought. It appears that heightened facility with language enables these children to absorb and express the values and modes of thought encoded in that language more readily than can average children. At an early age, they become sensitive distillers and reflectors of family values and themes. This is reflected in their behavior, talk, and thought processes.
  2. Assessment with the Intellectual-Cultural Orientation subscale of the Moos Family Environment Scale (Moos & Moos, 1994) suggested that these families were more cohesive (the degree to which family members are committed to one another and help and support each other) and expressive (acting openly and expressing feelings directly) than average families. The expressiveness pertains not only to feelings but also to the free exchange and exploration of ideas. The families not only scored higher than average families on this subscale, but also higher than families of gifted children in former studies (who also scored above the norm) (Cornell, 1984).
    The families scored lower than average on scales measuring orientation toward achievement or competition, participation in active social and recreational activities, degree of importance of clear organization and structure in family activities and responsibilities, and the extent to which set rules and procedures are used to run family life. Conflict occurred less in these families than in average families; while the extent to which family members were assertive, self-sufficient, and made their own decisions was higher than average.
  3. A birth order trend emerged in these families regarding self-definition among siblings. Consistent with earlier studies of giftedness and talent (e.g., Feldman, 1991), children identified as profoundly gifted were first-borns. The second-borns tended to describe themselves in terms of what they could do rather than how they could think. Their talents were centered around products and performances–construction and mechanical or architectural design (with construction or mechanical toys), dancing, or artistic abilities. The seven-year-old younger brother of the writing prodigy declared, ”I’m a doer, not a talker,” and exhibited his mechanical designs and building constructions. Kearney’s eight-year-old younger sister Maeghan, announced that she was the “creative” one in the family and took up drawing and the construction of doll clothes. The younger brother of the SAT-Math whiz also took up construction as a hobby, and delighted in showing the researcher a small building he had designed and his efforts at constructing a hot-air balloon. A younger sister of an eleven-year-old highly talented in mathematics, logical thought, and chess became an extraordinary dancer. Her brother reported that he was a “thinker” whereas she was an “applier.”

Generally, the second-borns were much more at ease when demonstrating their active talent areas than when talking in an interview. This was distinctly unlike their older siblings, who delighted in verbally exploring concepts and inner feelings. Interestingly, the only family in which this general pattern failed to hold true was one that valued sports, athletics, and “doing things in the real world” to such an extent that it may have overridden the usual pattern. In this particular family, the focus child reported that lie wanted to be a professional athlete. His younger sister, who was only four at the time of the interview was talented in drama, singing, and dance. Thus, both children were, at the time of the interviews, oriented toward more traditionally “second-born talents.”

For second-borns, the product seemed the central reason for thinking; while for first-borns, the focus was intense, enjoyable exploration of thought and concepts. Second-borns gravitated toward areas in which they did not have to compete with older siblings.

Extraordinarily High IQ and Achievement
With the advent of the IQ scale, extraordinarily high IQ aroused expectations of extraordinary achievement. Hollingworth considered children testing above 180 IQ as “potential geniuses” (Witty, 1951). She saw in them the possibility of original contributions of outstanding and lasting merit. A 1984 study (Feldman, 1984) using Terman’s (Terman, 1925-1959) original research files failed to bear out Hollingworth’s expectations for achievement.3

In recent years, some have begun to argue that the IQ score is an index of asynchronous development (Morelock, 1992, 2000; Silverman, 1997). As such, it gauges the degree to which the rate of children’s cognitive development is “in sync” with their rates of physical, social, and emotional development, as well as the extent to which children are facile in the manipulation of abstract symbols and concepts. According to proponents of the asynchronous development view, thdQ score is a diagnostic tool to assist in providing educational programming, counseling, and parenting that addresses children’s varying developmental levels and needs-not a predictive tool for ferreting out potential achievers. Morelock’s (1991) case study of “Jennie” was a progenitor of the asynchronous development view of giftedness.

A Sociohistorical Case Study of Asynchronous Development
In an in-depth case study of one extraordinarily high IQ child, Morelock (1991, 2000) explored the emotional repercussions of a child’s having a rate of cognitive development outpacing physical, social, and emotional development. Somewhere between the ages of three years, eight months, and four years, six months, “Jennie Cartwright” (a pseudonym) experienced a cognitive leap in her abstract reasoning abilities as documented through Stanford-Binet L-M testings at those two ages (IQ 148; IQ 176). The cognitive changes were accompanied by intense existential questioning and marked emotional turmoil.4

Jennie’s emotional turmoil during the period of the leap raised questions as to the emotional impact of such rapid changes. It also raised questions of the overall impact of the early and perhaps premature onset of abstract verbal-conceptual thinking in children’s development, as is characteristic of high-IQ children. Jennie’s development was cast in a Vygotskian framework to provide a theoretical explanation for the emotional vulnerability accompanying rapid cognitive development-when emotion and cognition become interrelated and children begin to have emotional reactions to the cognitive appraisal of events “too early” in life:

The repercussions of the asynchrony between Jennie’s cognitive abilities and her emotional needs highlights the importance of looking at children of extraordinarily high IQ from the perspective of asynchronous development and its associated inner experience.5 The case study inspired the evolution of the Columbus Group definition of giftedness. Based on asynchronous development, the group-formulated definition was first published in 1992 (Morelock, 1992). The case study appeared in its entirety eight years later (Morelock, 2000). The Columbus Group definition is articulated and debated in other literature (Gagne, 1997; Morelock, 1996, 1997a, 2000; Silverman, 1993, 1997).

Cognition and Imagination in Children of Extraordinarily High IQ
Children like Morelock’s “Jennie” are characterized by the ability to reason abstractly at an early age. They can be logical and analytical. They use analogies and metaphors and transfer ideas between contexts.

Because they see beyond what most children their age can see, recognizing complexities of which other children are unaware, for these children the simple can be complex. Consequently, they have a need for precision in thought and expression. For such children, alternate meanings are myriad, and there is no way of knowing precisely which meaning a questioner intends. If asked, “Are you having a nice time?” such a child might answer, “What do you mean by a nice time?” At the same time, because these children grasp abstract material by finding underlying patterns, what is complex to others can be simple for them. They can have an early grasp of the essential element of an issue (Lovecky, 1994).

One five-year-old boy, “Peter Martin” (pseudonym; IQ 200+), discovered Stephen Hawking’s book A Brief History of Time, which speculated on the origins of the universe. Fascinated with the book, he read it constantly, even falling asleep with it at night. About the same time, Peter saw a Sesame Street Christmas Special where Big Bird was worrying about how Santa Claus would get down all those chimneys. Peter applied the knowledge he had gained from Hawking’s book to come up ,with a solution. Hawking theorized that if someone were able to enter a black hole, the person would become longer and thinner as he or she went deeper into the hole and further away from its boundary, the “event horizon.” In addition, time would slow down. Peter reasoned that if Santa could direct and control the force of singularity (the force generated in the center of a black hole), he could make himself thin enough to get down chimneys. In addition, time would slow down so that he could get to all the houses in the world without any problem (Morelock, 1997b)!

The Prodigy

prodigy is a child who, before the age of ten, performs at the level of a highly trained adult in some cognitively demanding domain (Feldman, 1991; Morelock & Feldman, 1999,2000). As a uniquely defined category of extreme precocity, the prodigy came into being about two decades ago (Feldman, 1979)¬in spite of the fact that “prodigy” has been used loosely to refer to extraordinary youngsters for many years. Historically, the term meant any unnatural occurrence portending change (Feldman, 1991). It referred to an entire range of phenomena extending across happenings notable as uncanny or extraordinary- nary and the existence of humans or animals regarded as “freaks.” Eventually, as the term began to refer more narrowly to extreme human precocity, the “sign” or “portent” aspect of its meaning was dropped, while the essential connotation of ”unnatural” or “inexplicable” remained. Within this narrowed context, “prodigy” continued to be used to refer to a range of types of precocity (see Barlow, 1952).

With the advent of IQ and its general acceptance as the gauge of giftedness, prodigies were subsumed under the IQ umbrella (Feldman, 1979). Children composing sonatas at the age of six were assumed to have high IQs with penchants for given fields. While IQ began to dominate American concepts of giftedness, two studies of prodigies in the European literature failed to support IQ as the foundation for prodigiousness (Baumgarten, 1930; Revesz, 1925).

The Prodigy as Reflected in Research Literature6
Revesz and Erwin Nyiregyhazi. Revesz (1925) conducted a case study of the seven-year old Hungarian musical prodigy Erwin Nyiregyhazi, using interviews; observations of Erwin in and out of performing situations; anecdotes from family, teachers, and acquaintances; and formal assessments (e.g., the 1908 Binet-Simon Scale).

Erwin was remarkable from an early age. By the age of two he reproduced tunes sung to him, and by the end of his third year he demonstrated perfect pitch by reproducing on the mouth organ any melody sung to him. At four he played the piano and composed. In his fifth year he began formal music lessons. From age six to twelve Erwin became a celebrity, playing before the British royal family and other audiences in Budapest and Vienna. Revesz favorably compared Erwin’s abilities with those of other legendary prodigies and great musicians of the day.

On the Binet-Simon scale, Erwin scored a mental age three years beyond his chronological age of seven, or by modem reckoning slightly above 140 IQ. Revesz, however, asserted that the test inadequately revealed Erwin’s brilliant intellect, noting that the child “analyzed his own inner life in the manner of a trained psychologist” and “expressed himself with great caution and in remarkably pregnant phraseology” (Revesz, 1925, p. 42). In spite of Erwin’s talents and exhibited brilliance, Revesz asserted that the prodigy was indeed, in every aspect other than his music, a child: “He played as children play, was fond of boyish exploits, and enjoyed them very much” (Revesz, 1925, p. 58).

Baumgarten’s Nine Prodigies. Baumgarten (1930) studied nine child prodigies, including two pianists, two violinists, one orchestra conductor, one artist, one geographer, and one chess prodigy. Focusing on the children’s whole personalities rather than only their achievements, she also examined patterns of abilities. Like Revesz, she wrote of the mixture of adult and child demonstrated by her subjects. They appeared ambitious, pragmatic, wary of those who might harm their careers, passionately devoted to their fields, unafraid of public performance, and desirous of using their gifts to benefit their families.

There were surprising contrasts between various abilities within subjects. Violinists and pianists demonstrated poor hand coordination in bending wire, drawing, and folding and cutting-though one girl violinist had a talent for drawing. A six-year-old boy showing difficulty in making a circle out of two or three sections or a pentagon from two sections was, at the same time, extraordinarily good at map drawing .

On standardized intelligence tests, the children performed well, but not with the degree of extraordinariness conveyed by their special talents. In contemporary IQ terms, the scores ranged from 120 to at least 160. Baumgarten concluded that her subjects’ overall intellectual competence, as reflected in the test results, could not explain their outstanding performances in particular fields and that it was necessary to go beyond such testing to explain prodigious abilities-inheritance, temperament, family, education, environment, and culture must be examined.

Child Prodigies and Human Potential
A study of six prodigies begun in 1975 (Feldman, 1991, 1994; Goldsmith, 2000) included two chess players, a young mathematician, a musician-composer, a writer, and an “omnibus prodigy” showing prodigious achievement in a number of areas, but eventually focusing on music composition and performance.7 What developed into an open-ended effort to observe, understand, and explain the prodigy phenomenon began as a psychological experiment designed to refute an esoteric point in cognitive-developmental psychology. The point in question was the Piagetian assertion that, universally, children’s cognitive development proceeds in major predictable sequential stages grossly encompassing all of a child’s thinking capacities at any given point in time. Accordingly, to account for prodigies’ adult-level performance in specific fields, one would have to assume that their overall cognitive development was generally advanced beyond their years.

To test this assertion, four cognitive-developmental measures were administered to the two eight year-old chess players and the ten-year-old musician-composer (Bensusan, 1976).8 The results of the testing showed that these prodigies performed age-appropriately in logic, role-taking, spatial reasoning, and moral judgment. The Piagetian conceptualization of cognitive development was thus seriously challenged.

These findings, like those of Revesz and Baumgarten, suggest that prodigious abilities, rather than being the manifestation of a generalized endowment, are domain-specific. Association with these six prodigies and their families has extended beyond two decades, resulting in a theoretical framework, the coincidence theory, that seeks to explain not only prodigious development, but also all human achievement.

Co-Incidence Theory
Co-incidence is the melding of the many sets of forces interacting in the development and expression of human potential (Feldman, 1994). These include intraindividual (e.g., biological and psychological), environmental (e.g., familial, societal, or cultural), and historical forces. They comprise at least four different time frames bearing on the prodigy’s appearance and development: the individual’s life span, the developmental history of the field or domain, historical and cultural trends impacting individuals and fields, and evolutionary time. Each of these is discussed briefly.

Life Span of the Individual. This time frame includes biological propensities predisposing an individual toward talented performance in certain fields. An example might be Gardner’s (1993) concept of multiple brain-based intelligences (i.e., linguistic, musical, logical-mathematical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, and intrapersonal intelligences), each of which holds more or less potential for development within individuals. A child “at promise” for prodigious musical achievement is born with the intellectual, physical, and acoustic facilities necessary for extraordinary musical sensibility/performance.

Another factor in this time frame is the point in the child’s physical, social, and emotional developmental history when he or she is introduced to a domain. Playing the violin, for example, requires a certain degree of dexterity. Some children may develop this dexterity earlier than others. The time of introduction to the instrument may thus be an important factor in whether violin playing becomes a source of pleasure or a source of frustration. Children’s levels of social and emotional development may also play important roles in their receptivity to domains (Csikszentrnihalyi & Robinson, 1986). An adolescent grappling with age-appropriate issues of peer acceptance and popularity may opt out of long hours of piano practice, choosing instead to spend time socializing with peers. In the case of one chess prodigy, the attractions of the peer group proved powerful enough to jeopardize an intense commitment to chess (Feldman, 1991; Goldsmith, 2000).

A family’s likelihood of nurturing talent is another factor in this time frame. Mozart’s musician-father possessed the musical ability to instruct his son. He valued music and was interested enough to spend hours tutoring his children and accompanying them on concert rounds, aside from opportunistic motives he also may have had.

Degree of parental support may be affected by a child’s gender (Goldsmith, 1987). Historically, cultural undervaluing of feminine achievement has resulted in (1) less parental support for female would-be prodigies and (2) scarce documentation about girl prodigies.

Parental encouragement of talents may be influenced by values or child-rearing patterns passed down from prior generations. Transgenerational influences were apparently at work in the family of violinist Yehudi Menuhin. Menuhin’s family, for centuries, had been shaped by a Hasidic Jewish tradition emphasizing music and the development of boy prodigies groomed to assume religious leadership as rabbis. The fervor of the Menuhins in encouraging Yehudi’s prodigious talent may have been rooted in this tradition (Rolfe, 1978).

Developmental History of the Field. Bodies of knowledge develop and change over time. Consequently, performance requirements and opportunities change as well. The life span of a would-be prodigy coincides with some portion of a domain’s developmental history, the joint existence of the two allowing for a particular expression of the child’s potential. Prodigious achievement only occurs within domains accessible to children, meaning they require little prerequisite knowledge and are both meaningful and attractive to children. Media and techniques must be adaptable to children (e.g., child-size violins are necessary for child prodigy violinists). Given these prerequisites, music performance and chess are especially amenable to budding prodigies. Indeed, the largest proportion of child prodigies in recent decades emerges from these fields. Other fields produce comparatively few prodigies. There have been occasional writing prodigies, child prodigy visual artists (Goldsmith & Feldman, 1989), and on rare occasion a child prodigy in mathematics.

The delicate concordance of child ability and domain requirements for a particular area of achievement may shift as the prodigy develops. With entry into adolescence, new domains, previously inaccessible to the prodigy, become available for mastery (i.e., philosophy, art criticism, engineering, business, psychology, etc.) (Goldsmith, 2000). While these may call on abilities similar to the ones prodigies applied to their original domains of accomplishment, they may be engaging in their own way. Consequently, the prodigy may be enticed away from the original domain by new opportunities for learning and mastery.

Historical and Cultural Time Frame. This time frame reflects historical and cultural trends affecting opportunities for learning. Prodigious achievement is influenced by the cultural importance attached to various domains. The revived interest in science and math during the 1950s because of the Soviet satellite initiatives is one example.

Evolutionary Time Frame. Cultural and biological evolution provide the context within which all other factors in prodigy development interact Through biological variation and natural selection, human capabilities come into being and either flourish or cease to exist. Parallel evolutionary forces operate on cultures and their artifacts. This flux influences options for the expression of potential.

Co-incidence and Prodigious Achievement

The child prodigy is the manifestation of a fortuitous concordance of the forces of coincidence in such a way as to maximize the expression of human potential. In each case of prodigiousness, there was, first of all, a child of unquestionably extraordinary native ability. This child was born into a family that recognized, valued, and fostered that ability. The child was exposed to the instruction of master teachers possessing superior knowledge of the domain and its history, and imparting that knowledge in a way most likely to engage the interest and sustain the commitment of the child. For the child’s part, there was exhibited a combination of inner-directedness and a remarkably passionate commitment to the field of extraordinary achievement. Such commitment holds repercussions for family life, as shown in the following section.

Family Relationships
The family is the catalyst for the co-incidence process (Feldman, 1991). It is the prodigy’s parents who must locate teachers and resources and assure the child’s access. This may entail commuting or uprooting the family permanently to resettle closer to a mentor. Frequent changes may be required as the child outgrows a succession of mentors.

Close parental involvement results in a longer and more intense period of dependency for prodigies than in families with more typical children. Especially close family ties may be forged to protect a “special” child from an insensitive outside world.

The strong commitment to talent development shared by prodigies and their families means some sacrifice by other family members. Limited family resources may dictate that sibling talent goes unsupported. Or the prodigy’s presence may influence the channeling of sibling potential. When Hepzibah Menuhin, Yehudi’s younger sister, asked to learn to play the violin like her older brother, her parents encouraged her to play the piano instead-since Yehudi needed an accompanist. When Yalta, the youngest sibling, later showed interest in the piano, she was told to make herself useful around the house because the family didn’t need another musician. Yet many believed Hepzibah and Yalta to be equally as talented as Yehudi (Rolfe, 1978).

The roles of families of prodigies change with time (Goldsmith, 2000). Adolescent prodigies, if they are to continue to grow, must begin to establish separate and autonomous lives with regard to both their talent areas and their psychosocial development. The family must facilitate this process of individuation by gradually relinquishing control.

The Savant

The phenomenon of the savant, like that of the high-IQ child and the child prodigy, has its own unique history. In 1887 Dr. J. Langdon Down of London coined the term “idiot savant” to refer to severely mentally handicapped persons displaying advanced levels of learning in narrowly circumscribed areas (Down, 1887). Although intriguing in its own right, the term failed to describe the individuals it labeled, since they are generally neither “idiots” nor “savants.” In Down’s time, “idiot” referred to individuals operating at the lowest level of retarded intellectual functioning, as classified by practitioners on the basis of evaluation of speech and language capabilities. With the advent of IQ tests, idiocy was translated as encompassing the lowest portion of the IQ scale, spanning an IQ range of 0 to 20.9 In reality, however, the IQs of all known tested savants have been above 20–usually in the range of 40 to 70 (Treffert, 1989,2000). The savant part of the term was a straightforward adaptation from the French word “to know” or “man of learning,” which, although perhaps slightly more appropriate, was nevertheless a misnomer as well. 10

Given the inappropriateness of the term as a whole and the pejorative connotation of the first part of it, Treffert (1989) proposed “savant syndrome”-or just “savant”-as a more desirable name for the phenomenon. He described the phenomenon, offering more precise classification terminology as well as a theoretical explanatory framework (Treffert, 1989,2000).

Savant Syndrome-Definition and Description
Treffert defined savant syndrome as “an exceedingly rare condition in which persons with serious mental handicaps, either from mental retardation, Early Infant Autism or major mental illness (schizophrenia), have spectacular islands of ability or brilliance which stand in stark, markedly incongruous contrast to the handicap” (Treffert, 2000, p. 15). Some savants have skills that are remarkable simply in contrast to the handicap (talented savants, or savant 1); while in rarer forms of the condition, the abilities would be spectacular even if viewed in a normal person (prodigious savants, or savant II).

Savant syndrome, which occurs six times as often in males as in females, can be either congenital or acquired by a normal person after injury or disease of the central nervous system. The skills can appear and disappear-in an unexplained and sudden manner. Savant brilliance occurs only within very few areas: calendar calculating; music, chiefly limited to the piano; lightning calculating (the ability to do extraordinarily rapid mathematical calculations); art (painting, drawing, or sculpting); mechanical ability; prodigious memory (mnemonism); or, on rare occasion, unusual sensory discrimination (smell or touch) or extrasensory perception. Prodigious savants occur primarily within the areas of music, mathematics (lightning and calendar calculating), and memory. Treffert (1989, 2000) reported that there have been only about 100 known prodigious savants in the world literature-twelve to fifteen of whom are currently living.

Characteristics of Savant Functioning
Savants display minimal abstract reasoning ability combined with almost exclusive reliance on concrete and literal patterns of expression and thought (Scheerer, Rothman, & Goldstein, 1945; Treffert, 2000), sometimes, with humorous results.

Peek (1996) reported several instructive incidents in the life of his savant son, Kim. On one occasion, Kim squinted at a camera while having his picture taken. When his father told him to open his eyes, Kim took his fingers and literally used them to “open” his eyes. On another occasion, a professor asked Kim what he knew about Abraham Lincoln. Kim reeled off Lincoln’s date of birth, his death date, when and how he died, whom he had married, and his service in Congress. The professor interjected “Very good. Can you tell me his Gettysburg Address?” Kim responded “Will’s House, 227 North West Front Street-but he only stayed there one night. He gave his speech the next day” (Peek, 1996, p. 77).

Kim, like all savants, cannot use language symbolically or conceptually. His thought processes are constrained by a concrete, fact-oriented mindset dominated by simple associations. When asked what.. “Follow in your father’s footsteps” meant, Kim replied “Hold Dad’s arm so you won’t get lost in the airport” (Peek, 1996, p. 123).

Savants are incapable of metacognition (Scheerer, Rothman, & Goldstein, 1945; Treffert, 1989,2000). Calendar calculators commonly respond correctly to queries (e.g., “On what day of the week did September I, 1744, fall?”) without being able to ex”” plain how they arrived at the correct response. Those able to articulate rule-based strategies tend to have higher IQs than do their counterparts (Hermelin & O’Connor, 1986). All savants have incredibly powerful memories narrowly limited to their domains of achievement.

Savants also have an immediate intuitive access to the underlying strUctural rules and regularities of their particular domain, be it music (Treffert, 1989, 2000), mathematical calculation (Hermelin & O’Connor, 1986; O’Connor & Hermelin, 1984), or art (O’Connor & Hermelin, 1987). The domain-specific rules intuitively “known” by savants are the same rules applied by those with normal or high reasoning ability who are skilled in the same area. While savants function according to these rules and regularities, they have no metacognitive grasp of their own cognitive processes.

Savants can imitate, improvise, or embellish based on pre-established musical rules (Treffert, 2000). Hermelin, O’Connor, and Lee (1987) found that savants, by accessing a system of relevant rules and structures, can also invent music conforming to familiar patterns. The researchers concluded that this ability is independent of general intelligence.

Savants demonstrate a restricted range of emotion that precludes the experience of heightened passion, excitement, or sentiment. This restriction takes the form of generally flattened affect and-in the case of the performance of musical savants-shallow, imitative expressiveness lacking subtlety or innuendo (Treffert, 2000).

Using the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale (WAIS), Young (1995) investigated the psychometric performances of fifty-one savants recruited throughout Australia and the United States. The selection of savants included prodigious and talented savants as well as cases of “splinter skills”-levels of interest and competence only marginally above the level of general functioning. In contrast to the impression that savants manifest islands of extreme capability showcased against a backdrop of overly deficient intellect, Young found peaks and valleys in the cognitive profiles of her savants. Among her savants, sixteen had a subtest score at least one standard deviation above the general (non-savant) population mean, and a full 60% had at least 1 subtest one standard deviation above their Full-Scale Score. Highest scores were found on Block Design, Object Assembly, and Digit Span; while lowest accrued on Comprehension, Coding, and Vocabulary. These patterns are compatible with observed strengths and weaknesses of savant functioning documented in the literature (i.e., perceptual strengths and verbal/conceptual weaknesses). Tasks requiring successive or sequential processing (digit span, coding, and arithmetic) distinguished prodigious from talented subgroups, although sequential processing tasks did not differentially distinguish the type of skill (i.e., music, art, mathematics, etc.) Young included that while strengths in modes of processing may underlie the development of a skill, they do not influence the type of skill. In the savants’ profiles, the Similarities subtest, which in the normal population loads on the Verbal Comprehension factor, was aligned more closely with the Perceptual Organization factor. Young concluded that her subjects approached this subtest using a different mode of information processing than does the normal population (Young, 1995; Morelock & Feldman, 2000).

Explaining the Prodigious Savant
In explaining the prodigious savant, Treffert (2000) posits that pre- or postnatal injury to the brain’s left hemisphere results in right hemispheric compensatory growth, reflected in impairment of language and analytic thought, but heightened capacity for right-brain-dominated functions (e.g., musical and spatial abilities). Injury to the cerebral cortex causes memory functions to shift to a more primitive area of the brain (the corticostriatal system). Memory becomes nonassociative, habitual, emotionless, and nonvolitional-a conditioned response. The prodigious savant’s extensive access to the structural rules of domains may be based on some inherited ancestral memory transmitted across generations and inherited separately from general intelligence. 11 Once the groundwork is laid for savant skills, intense concentration, obsessive repetition, social reinforcement for display of special abilities, and a drive to exercise those abilities produce the prodigious savant.

Snyder and his associates (Snyder, 1998; Snyder & Mitchell, 1999; Snyder & Thomas, 1997) propose another explanation, suggesting that, though not normally accessible, savant abilities exist in all of us. The normal brain is highly concept-driven: To cope with the stream of information from the outside, we categorize and conceptualize our experience, responding to it not in terms of the sensory details bombarding us, but in terms of conceptual mindsets. Thus, normal preschool children draw according to preset mental schema and abstracted patterns rather than with naturalistic, photographic detail. For example, a circle is used to represent a human face. A “concept-driven brain” confers advantage by allowing us to operate automatically, using unconscious mechanisms to sift through a world of unconscious information and arrive at final judgments and mindsets.

Savants, lacking this ability for conceptualization, are thrown back onto the lower levels of neural information-the raw information from which the rest of us abstract our conceptual schemes. Thus, savant artists draw with naturalistic detail, even when still at preschool age (Selfe, 1977); savant lightning calculators perform lightning-fast integer arithmetic (lengthy multiplication, division, factorization, and prime identification) (Smith, 1983); and savant musicians rely on perfect pitch (Miller 1989). All savants recall detail by accessing underlying processes common to all brains, but inaccessible to normal ones.

Snyder and Mitchell (1999) explain that apart from learning the nomenclature or the symbolic representation of numbers, integer arithmetic is simply the ability to separate groups into an equal number of elements, or to “equipartition.” Equipartitioning is fundamental to some yet unknown aspect of men- tal processing-either analytical or perceptual. While mathematical savants tap a capacity for spatial equipartitioning (Le., representing groups and patterns), musical savants equipartition time. Equipartitioning space and time in combination may be a mechanism that relates music and mathematics.

Juxtaposing the Extremes: The Child of Extraordinary IQ, the Prodigy, and the Savant

The types of extreme precocity discussed in this chapter can be characterized in terms of (1) degree of generalized abstract reasoning ability and (2) extent and nature of domain-specific ability. Morelock and Feldman’s Taxonomy (see Table 35.1), which first appeared in the 1991 inaugural edition of this Handbook, compares and contrasts the various forms of precocity found in the research literature.

Table 35.1 Morelock/Feldman Taxonomy of Extreme Precocity

Type of Child Characteristics
Extraordinarily high IQ – omnibus prodigy Extraordinarily high abstract reasoning capability plus extraordinarily advanced domain-specific skills in multiplicity of domains. Performs at the level of a highly trained adult in multiple domains. Displays passionate involvement with numerous domains of prodigious achievement. Voracious appetite for academic knowledge.
Prodigy Displays anywhere from above-average to extraordinarily high generalized abstract reasoning capability plus extraordinarily advanced domain-specific skill in a single domain. Performs at the level of a highly trained adult in a single domain. Displays passionate involvement with domain of prodigious achievement. May demonstrate voracious appetite for academic knowledge.
Extraordinarily high-IQ child Extraordinarily high IQ-omnibus prodigy Prodigy Extraordinarily high generalized abstract reasoning capability and possibly notable domain-specific skills in one or more areas. May be intensely drawn to a number of different areas. May have a problem committing to a single area of interest. Voracious appetite for academic knowledge.
Prodigious savant Minimal generalized abstract reasoning capability and islands of extraordinar¬ily advanced domain-specific skill in one or more areas. Appears driven to ex¬ercise domain-specific capabilities. Concrete thinker.

Note: These classifications reflect the types of extreme precocity found in the research literature to date. Certain groups, such as mental calculators and mnemonists, are anomalous in that they display anywhere from minimal to extraordinarily high generalized abstract reasoning ability along with their islands of advanced skill. When minimal generalized abstract reasoning capability exists. such persons are classified as prodigious savants. According to the definition here, however. they cannot be classified as prodigies-even at higher levels of abstract reasoning ability-because standards for highly trained adult performance do not exist in their areas of achievement. The generalized abstract reasoning capability referred to in this table is logical, verbal-conceptual facility.


Prodigies, savants, and children of extraordinarily high IQ are the three types of extreme precocity identified in the literature. Terman’s 1916 Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale enabled research into children with exceptionally strong verbal-conceptual abstract reasoning abilities (extraordinarily high-IQ children). But various forms of precocity were not clearly distinguished until years later. Thus, Barlow’s (1952) Mental Prodigies included a hodgepodge of synoptic accounts under the heading of “prodigies.” And prodigies” and “idiot savants” remained confused with and incompletely explained by IQ-related notions.

Hollingworth (1942) was the first to launch an in-depth study devoted to children of extraordinarily high IQ, documenting their needs for accelerated and enriched educational programming and their emotional vulnerability. Gross (1993) later documented self-concept problems and advanced moral reasoning among these children. Morelock’s (1991, 2000) case study of “Jennie” used a sociohistorical perspective to frame the development of extraordinarily high-IQ children and inspired the construct of asynchronous development.

Feldman (1991) introduced a precise definition of “prodigy” and highlighted the domain-specific nature of prodigious talent, simultaneously challenging the power of either Piagetian conceptualizations or IQ to explain the prodigy phenomenon. A developmental theory (Co-incidence) was proposed to explain prodigious achievement.

In 1989, Treffert documented the types of “idiot savants” in the literature, differentiated between talented and prodigious savants, suggested an explanation for the phenomenon based on left hemispheric injury with compensatory neuronal growth in the right hemisphere, and proposed that the term idiot savant be dropped and replaced with savant. Snyder and his associates later proposed that savant abilities are natural to all human brains, but inaccessible to normally functioning, “concept-driven” ones.

Morelock and Feldman (1991) developed a taxonomy of extreme precocity, delineating and differentiating manifestations of extreme precocity. It appears in this chapter.



  1. Consider the terms gifted, prodigy, idiot savant, savant syndrome. and asynchronous development. How has our understanding of various manifestations of extreme precocity been influenced by the names, definitions, and nuances attached to them over the last century?
  2. Consider viewing children of extraordinarily high IQ either as “potential geniuses” or as experiencing “asynchronous development.” How would each view affect the way society and the schools regard them and their needs?
  3. Discuss how the following scenes from the 1988 film Rain Man movie reflect savant thinking and functioning.
  4. If Raymond were endowed with a normal IQ, how might he have responded in each of the scenes?
  5. Use Feldman’s co-incidence theory to analyze the evolution of your own talents, interests, and achievements. What are your biologically based strengths? Do these match the talent domains available in your culture? Do your strengths match the values, talents, and interests in your family environment? Do you see transgenerational influences at work in your family? Which influences have most supported your talents?


  1. This story may be found in the Bible, King James Version, Luke 2:46-47.
  2. For an excellent and thorough review of the literature or cognitive development in exceptionally and profoundly gifted individuals, see Gross (2000).
  3. We define genius in terms of developmental changes in bodies of knowledge. That is, a creative contribution meriting the designation of genius is one that transforms an entire domain of human knowledge. One of such caliber, for example, was Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity, which did, indeed, transform the domain of physics (Feldman, 1980, 1994).Feldman (1984) compared the lives of Terman’s twenty-six above-180-IQ subjects with a group of lesser IQ (average group IQs: 185 versus 150) randomly selected from the original sample of over 1,500. Although there was some evidence that the above-180-IQ subjects were more successful, the difference was slight. A small number of distinguished men emerged from the group (e.g., an academic psychologist of international repute, a celebrated landscape architect, a judge, and a promising pollster who committed suicide at age 28), but the degree of distinction was not on a par with genius.In a longitudinal study following 320 extraordinarily high-IQ adolescents (averaging over 180 in estimated IQs) over ten years into young adulthood (Lubinski, Webb, Morelock, & Benbow, 2001), subjects pursued doctoral degrees at rates over 50 times base-rate expectations, and several participants created noteworthy literary, scientific, or technical products by their early twenties.
  4. Hollingworth (1942) documented leaps in IQ scores in the children she studied. One child, at age six years, seven months attained an IQ score of 163, while at eight years, he achieved an IQ of 192, prompting Hollingworth to note in her record that “the increase over the IQ obtained at the age of six is not unusual for a very young, very bright child, although it would be unusual for an average child” (p. 178).
  5. Larisa V. Shavinina (1999) saw Jennie’s cognitive leap as a manifestation of a “sensitive period” in developmental window of time during which conditions are optimal for cognitive development to proceed at a rapid pace and children are especially likely to actualize potentially extraordinary abilities.
  6. A number of biographical or psycho-historical accounts have been published providing interesting insights into the life of the prodigy. See, for example, Kathleen Montour’s (1977) “William James Sidis: The Broken Twig”; Norbert Wiener’s 1953 autobiography, Ex-Prodigy: My Childhood and Youth; Amy Wallace’s 1986 book (also about William James Sidis), The Prodigy; Fred Waitzkin’s 1984 book, Searching for Bobby Fischer: The World of Chess. Observed by the Father of a Child Prodigy; and Kenneson’s (1998) Musical Prodigies.
  7. At the age of three and one-half when Adam, the omnibus prodigy, first entered the study, he was reported to read, write, speak several languages, study mathematics, and compose for the guitar (Feldman, 1980).
  8. The four measures given were (1) Inhelder and Piaget’s (1958) five chemicals task, a test of the level of acquisition of various concrete and formal logical operations; (2) a role-taking task devised by John Flavell (1968) and his associates at the University of Minnesota, the aim of which is to test social-cognitive development by assessing the level of ability to take another’s point of view; (3) a map-drawing exercise, an adaptation of Piaget and Inhelder’s (1948) layout diagram task (Snyder, Feldman, & La Rossa, 1976), which gives a general estimate of the level of the coordination of spatial-logical reasoning; and (4) a psychometric measure of level of moral judgment and reasoning prepared by James Rest (1986), based on Kohlberg’s stages of moral development (Feldman, 1991).
  9. The term idiot was used from 1910 to 1968 to refer to this portion of the IQ scale. In 1968, the World Health Organization adopted the term profoundly retarded to refer to this same range (Craft, 1979).
  10. Bernard Rimland (1978) claimed that the idiot in idiot savant came from the French idiot, meaning “ill-informed or untutored.” This interpretation captures the paradoxical nature of the phenomenon (Le., “untutored man of learning”) without confusing the issue with IQ-associated connotations.
  11. Treffert was not the first to suggest the possibility of genetically transmitted qualities of intellect. The idea has had a fair amount of support since, at least, Francis Galton’s (1892) book Hereditary Genius. Brill (1940) proposed inherited transmission of domain-specific gifts as a factor in lightning calculator abilities.


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