Research has indicated a genetic link between autism and the prodigiously gifted.
Professor of Psychology at Ohio State University, Joanne Ruthsatz, is currently heading a comprehensive study that is investigating the fascinating aspects of such an autism-prodigy connection. Enthralled with its implications, the Southampton Arts Festival, brainchild of pianist Elena Baksht and violinist Dmitri Berlinsky, integrated this aspect of musical heritage to this summer’s classical music Festival that takes place in Southampton, now in its third year.
“I knew that so many musicians, who had made it to an elaborate level within their music careers, started out as child prodigies. When I heard that 70 percent of the current study cases are music prodigies, it made perfect sense to lend our full support to the cause and at the same time offer performance possibilities for these gifted musicians,” says Baksht. “In addition, our support also ends up helping the less fortunate side of the prodigy/autism equation.”
The festival offers concerts, performed by acclaimed and award-winning musicians at a variety of locations, including the Southampton Cultural Center and some unique private estates. This year, the festival’s musicians play in cooperation with some of the prodigies, brought to the festival by Ruthsatz.
Their fruitful collaboration has already brought on board Nobel Prize Laureate Jim Watson of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratories, who now supports Ruthsatz’s research efforts. In addition, the festival will donate a portion of its August concerts’ proceeds to the research.
But Berlinsky and Baksht have many more plans for the future, including a teaching program that reaches out to the Hampton community and continues to build on the Festival’s effort of promoting greater exposure to and knowledge of classical music. “The proximity of the festival’s location to New York offers incredible opportunities for us to attract the greatest musicians performing here and Dmitri and I both hope to expand our reputation over time.”
Co –founder and artistic director of the festival is Baksht’s former husband, violinist Dmitri Berlinsky, with whom she continues to share the stage and the many organizational logistics. ”The festival was both of our dreams come true at a time when it felt right to move ahead, despite our personal life,” Baksht says and Berlinsky adds, via email from his current concert-tour in Italy: “Many, many close friends are involved and we owe so much to some of the festival’s supporters” and mentions in particular the President of the Board, Roger Samet, as well as David and Julia Koch and Anneliese Soros. “We could not let anything stand in the way.”
“Many things came together in perfect synergy,” says Baksht, marveling about the musicianship of some of the prodigies – and she is not alone. Renowned Juilliard Professor and pianist, Jerome Loventhal, called 9 year old William Chen’s playing “of astonishing artistic authority, perfectly shaped and voiced.” (On the occasion of his winning First Prize at the Crescendo International Competition, William Chen will perform at the festival on August 19th. (Southampton Cultural Center)
So how does it all come together? According to Ruthsatz, the research based on data collected from young music prodigies turned out to hold a possible key to understanding the cause for autism, as well as helping to provide a viable cure. As she looked further, she discovered “that both the first degree families of individuals with autism and the first degree families of prodigies in her sample displayed three out of five common traits of autism: impaired social skills, impaired ability to switch attention and heightened attention to detail.”
“This intrigued her so she decided to look for autism in her current sample of prodigies,” wrote Scott Barry Kaufman, Ph.D. in “The mind of the Prodigy” published by Huffington Post. In her study, published in the journal, Intelligence, Ruthsatz and violin virtuoso Jourdan Urbach, a child prodigy himself, involved eight other musical child prodigies, who were eager to help investigate further clues. Ruthsatz administered the Stanford-Binet IQ test to the prominent child prodigies who have been featured on national and international television programs, and most of whom had reached professional level performance in their domain by age ten. Interestingly the results of the testing showed that it was not necessarily an elaborate IQ value they had in common, but rather a superlative working (long-term) memory and a high attention to detail (a trait prevalent in autism). In this month’s article, published in Slate, “Do child prodigies owe their talents to autism?” Katy Waldman picks up on Ruthsatz’s premises that prodigies may have autism (or at least autism-affiliated traits) to thank for some of their remarkable feats.
“Autism runs in the family of many child prodigies,” says Ruthsatz. “It is thrilling to see how willing they are to undergo DNA analysis, to possibly help solve the puzzle. We think that there is a genetic modifier at work with prodigies that brings out their talent and lets their artistic personality shine through, and not the deficit. It may provide the genetic clue for autism, preventing the autistic traits to surface.” To the daring suggestion that this testing will also highlight the disabilities associated with autism and perhaps impact the world- view of prodigies, most of the child prodigies just say: “Why wouldn’t we want to help?!” “Most of the child prodigies are really social and love the interaction of the Festival,” adds Ruthsatz.
It is the following aspect that seems to explain the ‘natural’ connection between fundraisers for the arts and the prodigies: “The child prodigies as a group has advanced moral development,” says Ruthsatz. Future research will investigate the underpinnings to such benevolent behavior (Studies by Ernst Fehr in Switzerland pointing to a scientific, genetic linkage to the ability of being sensitive to the needs of others).”
This year Baksht also approached international superstar pianist Evgeny Kissin (a most famous child prodigy himself) who agreed to be mentioned as ‘Honorary Artistic Advisor’ to the festival. Baksht remembers Kissin’s performance at Moscow’s famed Gnessin School for Gifted Children, where she heard Kissin perform at age 8. She approached Kissin with: ”I remember you since I was 5 years old – performing 2 Chopin mazurkas and a Waltz… and we laughed about this ”shared” performance and he acknowledged encouraging: “It’s probably a lot of work on your shoulders to put this all together.”…And how right he is,” says Baksht.
Festivals are not created out of thin air: Berlinsky shares that he developed much interest in the launching of the Southampton Arts Festival with the help of supporters of his musical artistry and his personal friendships, forged during the past twenty years.
“While it’s a great passion, it also takes the greatest effort and we really hope that the community will give us their full support. Everyone – except the artists- works on a pro-bono basis, so far, but in order to grow, there needs to be an operating budget,” Baksht continues. Coming from a cultural environment where the arts were supported by the government, the fund raising aspect is something the thirty-something young pianist has had to adjust to. Her 8 years old son endorses her efforts:”Mama, you have courage and you never give up.”
A vital correlation to promoting classical music, is added by connecting the dots to the gene pool that holds the secrets of our culture’s talent and can potentially make a huge difference in people lives with autism.
Hampton’s visitors will be able to not only support this important research but also celebrate the gifted musicians.
By Ilona Oltuski, PH.D.
The Wolffer Estate Vineyard, will host a benefit concert for Southampton Arts Festival
-catered by award winning prodigy chef, Greg Grossman-
on August 22.nd, at 7.30 PM.
139 Sagg Road, Sagaponack, NY. 11962
For further dates and locations see the Festival’s website: www.southamptonartsfestival.org
or the South Hampton Cultural Center 631-287-4377 – www.sothhamptonculturalcenter.org
For interviews with Joanne Ruthsatz about her study call Terre@917-8334911
Elena Baksht’s website is : www.elenabaksht.com
Dmitiry Berlinsky’s website is: www.dmitriberlinsky.com