Jacob Barnett of recent 60 Minutes fame, could have been a poster child for Thomas Sowell’s Einstein Syndrome. Although he is a math prodigy, Jacob did not talk until age two, and exhibits many of the characteristics Sowell identifies as part of the Einstein Syndrome:
- Outstanding and precocious analytical abilities and/or musical abilities
- Outstanding memories
- Strong wills
- Highly selective interests, leading to unusual achievements in some areas and disinterest and ineptness in others
- Delayed toilet training
- Precocious ability to read and/or use numbers and/or use computers
- Close relatives in occupations requiring outstanding analytical and/or musical abilities
- Unusual concentration and absorption in what they are doing
- Delayed speech development
In his book, The Einstein Syndrome: Bright Children Who Talk Late, Sowell paints a picture that any parent of a child diagnosed with speech delay, autism, or Asperger’s would want to embrace: their child’s late speech does not indicate a problem, but may be a sign of giftedness. As evidence for his theory, he points to talented thinkers and performers, such as famed pianist Arthur Rubinstein, India’s self-taught mathematical genius Ramanujan, and Nobel Prize winning physicist Albert Einstein as examples of gifted late-talkers.
Sowell’s primary motivation is to stop pathologizing these late-talking children who are also gifted in specific domains. He rightly raises concerns that characteristics of giftedness such as early reading, selective interests and unusual concentration can be mistaken for the symptoms of autism spectrum disorders or Asperger’s syndrome, especially by school psychologists and therapists who rely on checklists for such diagnoses. Early reading can be mistaken for hyperlexia, the precocious ability to read—but without comprehension. And selective interests can be misinterpreted as obsessive or pathological, even though many gifted children have unusual interests and uncommon depth of knowledge on specific topics. Sowell believes children with Einstein Syndrome are also strong-willed, a trait found in many gifted children, and are likely to be misdiagnosed because of their refusal to cooperate within the parameters of testing. These are all important factors for parents to consider, however a diagnosis of autism or Asperger’s syndrome may no longer be viewed as being stigmatizing as Sowell implies. In fact, Jacob Barnett turns out to be an example of the increased awareness and public acceptance of autism spectrum disorders—Jacob was diagnosed with autism which he feels is the source of many of his outstanding abilities.
Sowell cautions against automatically assuming that late-talkers need speech therapy. He argues that it is difficult to tell whether the therapy is effective, or whether time and maturity would bring the same result. He makes a distinction between late-talkers who have the ability to comprehend language, such as children with the Einstein Syndrome, and those who do not, in order to identify children who need therapeutic intervention. The book includes anecdotes of interventions that parents felt were actually harmful to their children’s development. Sowell suggests that children with the Einstein Syndrome will begin to talk when their brains reach a crucial stage of development, and that trying to train or force them to talk sooner is fruitless. This idea is supported by his “no free lunch” model of brain development: children with precocious analytical abilities may be developing those by diverting resources from areas of the brain responsible for expressive language. On the other hand, Sowell’s sample of case studies was taken from a small group of self-selected families who were dissatisfied with the diagnoses and treatments their children had received. He doesn’t take into account that many others, such as Jacob, have benefited from early speech therapy.
While The Einstein Syndrome offers a hopeful interpretation of delayed language development in children who otherwise exhibit high ability, without further research it could mislead caregivers and significantly impact the healthy development of young children. Sowell’s theory leaves many questions unanswered, and sends mixed messages to parents about whether or not to have their late-talkers evaluated by professionals. Sowell, whose expertise is in economics, repeatedly encourages parents to reject the diagnoses of professionals in educational psychology and medicine. His understanding of autism spectrum disorders is not nuanced, and he is not an expert on autism.
The window of time during which young children can easily acquire language is only a few years, and there are great benefits to early intervention for children on the autism spectrum or with speech delay. The wait-and-see approach, advocated by Sowell, diminishes the opportunity for language acquisition in young children during the period when the brain is most malleable. While The Einstein Syndrome discusses a real problem—the misdiagnosis of gifted late-talkers—it does not solve that problem, and creates a new “syndrome” which unfortunately encourages non-professionals to diagnose late-talkers based on an unsubstantiated theory.
This post originally appeared on the National Association for Gifted Children’s Parenting for High Potential blog.