Book Review, The Einstein Syndrome, Bright Children Who Talk Late, by Thomas Sowell, Basic Books, 2001. 201pp plus index
I picked up this book because of a grandchild who does not talk as much as most his age. What I found was not only an interesting book but one that is significant to a minority of children and their parents. Unfortunately, as the author indicates, we do not know how small that minority is, nor is there any definitive method at present of knowing if some particular children are in this group. In fact there is a tremendous gap of unknowns regarding these children, to the point that Sowell entitles one chapter “Groping for Answers.”
This book is about very smart children who talk late and are often misdiagnosed as autistic, retarded, hearing impaired, or otherwise handicapped. The effect is devastating to the children and their parents. It is also a potential loss to society if those children are mistreated to the point that they fail to accomplish what they otherwise might. Some famous people with this symptom include Einstein of course for whom it is named, plus fellow physicists Edward Teller and Richard Feynmann. Others include musicians Arthur Rubinstein and Clara Schumann, and mathematician Julia Robinson Schumann and Robinson are among the rare females in this overwhelmingly male group.
I do not know how many parents have children in this category but clearly there are some and those parents will benefit from reading this book. Their children will also benefit since informed parents may then be able to fight an often recalcitrant school and social system and protect their children from mistreatment. If any of my readers have children meeting the description below, I urge them to read this book.
The typical first-noticed sign of Einstein syndrome is failure to develop language skills at the expected age. Such children may remain completely speechless or they may use a few words, even nonsense words, but they fail to put the words together into coherent phrases or sentences. Some may fail to understand the spoken word, but most apparently understand much earlier than they can speak. When they finally do speak some start off haltingly, others begin speaking complete sentences. Many go on to become socially as adept as their peers while some do not, much like average children.
In many cases it is uncertain if the child cannot speak or simply chooses not to talk. In fact some speak in certain circumstances, then do not speak again for extended periods of time. One little boy did not speak until his older brother, reading aloud to the parents, had difficulty with a word. The little brother read the sentence aloud, perfectly. Then he did not speak again for months.
Another common sign of this syndrome is delayed toilet training. Most children are toilet trained by between two and three years of age. For these children the median is at least a year later.
Those signs can easily mislead parents, friends, relatives, and even some professionals to believe the child has severe and permanent problems. As a result many of these children are placed in classes designed for the handicapped. That is hard on the children and interferes with their development. The mistake is understandable, autistic children do exist, as do those who are hard of hearing, the retarded, and even idiot savants. The symptoms can be similar. In fact today, the most likely misdiagnosis for these children is probably autism. Unfortunately the treatment that helps a child with those problems can harm the child with Einstein syndrome. It is important to avoid misdiagnosis, difficult though that may be.
So what are the indications that a child is in this group instead of autistic, retarded or otherwise permanently handicapped? While there is no clear indication, there are some things that can point in that direction.
First, what about hereditary background? So far all indications are that this is an inherited trait. Most such children have close relatives who are either in an analytical job or who are musicians. Children and grandchildren of engineers, scientists etc. appear to be over-represented in this group, as do children of musicians.
Second, are there early signs of high intelligence, especially in the areas of analytical skills, music and memory? Sowell calls this the three M's: Math, Music and Memory. These children tend to do exceptionally well at analytical and mathematical work. They often have prodigious memories and frequently become competent musicians at very young ages. They are often very good at taking things apart and reassembling them. In fact one boy switched the locking doorknob from the bathroom with the non-locking one from the basement, then locked his mother in the basement where she was doing laundry – he was three years old at the time.
This last characteristic can be dangerous. Sowell's own son (who inspired his investigation into this) quickly learned to defeat the locks on the safety gates which his parents put on the stairs and leading into the kitchen. He took a tumble down the stairs as a result, but was fortunately unhurt. As you might guess, raising such children magnifies the difficulty of dealing with curious and lively offspring. However it also magnifies the potential rewards since such children often grow up to be a credit to their parents and an asset to society.
If parents suspect that a child is in this group, Sowell recommends that they get multiple independent evaluations. They should avoid anyone who agrees to give a second opinion only after they see the first evaluation – that will not be an independent opinion. They should also be wary of schools, speech therapists, and others who benefit from getting more clients in lucrative programs. Too often those people have neither the skills nor the motivation to distinguish between autistic children and this syndrome.
If these bright children are misdiagnosed they will be subjected to inappropriate therapy and probably placed in programs for the handicapped. The therapy will probably anger them (they are often capable of world-class tantrums) and the handicapped programs will deny them the challenge they need. A bright child will be bored and likely cause mischief. Many will drop out of school because there is nothing there to interest them.
What these children need is intellectual stimulation. That means real advanced classes, not just standard classes with more busy-work. Many have done very well when placed in classes well above their age group. They also do well in special summer programs sponsored by universities. However many “educators” are wedded to the lock-step model that fits the average child. They regard genius with suspicion. After young Edward Teller showed his teacher a better way to do a math problem the teacher responded, “So you are a genius, Teller? Well, I don't like geniuses.” Few teachers today would dare express such sentiments openly, but many undoubtedly nervous about smart students.
Parents of these bright children should be prepared to fight for what is best for the child, going against the establishment if necessary.
What is the cause of this syndrome? That is unknown but Sowell does have an idea about a possibility. (Though he states clearly that it is an idea at this point, it is not yet shown to be fact.) It is known that the brain continues to develop for the first years of life and Sowell speculates that the analytical part, associated with both music and critical thinking, may develop early at the expense of the nearby portion devoted to speech. There are several facts that go along with that possibility, but so far there is nothing approaching proof.
As mentioned, there are a lot of unknowns about this subject. Sowell is getting on in years and unlikely to contribute much more to the research. Fortunately Professor Stephen Camarata of Vanderbilt is continuing the task with a larger group of children. He will be able to follow many of those children into adulthood. Like Sowell, Camarata is the father of an Einstein syndrome child. However Camarata's profession training is in hearing and speech science. Whereas Sowell is a non-specialist more or less dragged into this subject, Camarata has a more appropriate background. That is the good news.
The bad news is that you cannot accelerate the process of following children into adulthood. Whatever answers Professor Camarata finds will not be available for years. Meanwhile parents who believe they might have an Einstein syndrome child will have to do the best they can with the information available. I wish them well.
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