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by Thomas Sowell
Basic Books, 2001
Review by E. Siobhan Mitchell on Oct 15th 2002

The Einstein Syndrome

It is ironic how 30 years ago doctors were loath to give parents a diagnosis of autism when presented with a late-talking child, yet now parents must fight to convince child evaluators that a late-talking toddler does not always indicate pervasive developmental disorder. The Einstein Syndrome focuses this small component of children who might outwardly give all the signs of autism, such as fascination with mechanical devices and reluctance to speak, who are actually normal social and in terms of general intelligence. The name of the book comes from the famous anecdote on Einstein, who purportedly didn’t speak full sentences until age 5, and was labeled an idiot despite exceptional mathematical ability. With The Einstein Syndrome, Thomas Sowell, a noted economist affiliated with Stanford, has followed up his earlier book, Late-Talking Children, with more detailed case studies and a large section on advice to parents of late-talkers.

So how exactly did an economist come to write about child development syndromes? Sowell begins his book by relating his own experiences as a parent of a child who refused to speak until kindergarten. He had clues that his son was intelligent by observing him opening complicated child safety gates but found that friends and colleagues were more discouraging about his son’s intellect. Sowell found that little documentation of this “Einstein syndrome” existed, and so embarked on his own research with Dr. Stephen Camarata, collecting families and studying similarities between them.

This book is a very useful volume for any parents with a child whose behavior fits that of the “Einstein Syndrome”. There are several chapters describing the kinds of parents that may be more likely to have a late-talking child, such as engineers or musicians, with extensive descriptions of behavior associated with late-talking children. However, the bulk of the book discusses individual case studies of adults and adolescents who were late-talking. Sowell has acquired a large database of “Einstein Syndrome” children where he documents their behavior from infant to adult, indicating their level of academic achievement or other notable skills such as instrument-playing or computer programming. The feeling one gets from reading these case studies is that he attempt to give the rosiest picture possible of late-talking children, emphasizing their abilities and glossing over deficits. Sowell finishes the book with several chapters on how parents can get help for their late-talking progeny. There are listings of psychologists who can provide developmental testing, websites and associations devoted to “Einstein Syndrome” children. He asserts the importance of early intervention in maximizing the potential of such individuals and ends with his personal thoughts on sociological implications of “Einstein Syndrome”.

There are several aspects of this book that need to be critiqued. First is the lack of discussion on the cognitive neuroscience aspects of “Einstein Syndrome”. The epidemiological studies cited give evidence that this syndrome does, in fact, exist, but Sowell does not even offer possibilities on how such a cognitive phenomenon may arise. Secondly, the case studies project a somewhat biased perspective, in that each individual is depicted as an ultimately successful individual. Sowell records how most case studies had moderate success in school and in finding an appropriate career but does not delve into the social adjustment of these children. This omission is surprising since one would expect that the main difficulty of overcoming late speech is learning how to developing relationships with people through communication. The author uses social descriptions of case studies mainly to point out how these children can’t be autistic, but doesn’t assess whether these adolescents are socially successful. A third critique would be the fact that this book may be detrimental to those parents who do have an autistic child but want to believe he or she is only “late-talking”.

The Einstein Syndrome is a fascinating look at a very little known cognitive development pattern. Sowell has obviously researched this book as a labor of love, since it is such a radical departure from his chosen area of expertise. He presents a sympathetic and thoughtful portrayal of what is like to be a parent of a late-talking child and offers hope and advice on how to raise one.


© 2002 E. Siobhan Mitchell

E. Siobhan Mitchell writes about herself:

I am a 27 year old PhD student in neuroscience living in upstate NY. I am studying the effects of prenatal drug exposure on the brain. My favorite authors are Diana Wynne Jones and Wilton Barnhardt. I love reading coming-of-age books and watching the same type of movies. I have a three-year-old son who loves listening to Harry Potter as a bed-time story.