Portrait of a Child with Einstein Syndrome

Credit: Dmitry Ratushny on Unsplash

I first learned about Einstein Syndrome while researching all the possible reasons for speech delay among young children. One of the characters in my novel, Glorious Boy, was mute and had been ever since he appeared in the dream that inspired the story, but the dream didn’t explain why the boy didn’t talk. When I read Thomas Sowell’s book The Einstein Syndrome, however, I knew at once that this developmental pattern was the reason I’d been looking for.

Subsequently, I discovered the work of Dr. Stephen Camarata, who specializes in Einstein Syndrome, and I realized that a member of my own family fit the same description: a child whose mind is so preoccupied with the physics of sound, light, motion, and nature that social interaction and communication are muted. A child who doesn’t speak their first word until age two, or three, or four.

Kids with Einstein Syndrome today are often misdiagnosed as being on the autism spectrum. Their delayed speech is only one of the challenges. They also tend to be late in toilet training and prone to tantrums. It may be that their minds are busy on more important matters. Albert Einstein, after all, was such a child. So were the physicists Edward Teller and Richard Feynman. So were master pianists Clara Schumann and Arthur Rubinstein. And Julia Robinson, the first female president of the American Mathematical Association. Not all children with this syndrome turn out to be geniuses, but many grow up to be extremely curious and interesting people.

What If…

Today, information about Einstein Syndrome is available to reassure the parents of these challenging children. But what, I wondered, would parents of such a child have thought in the 1930s? And what if the family had no access even to the speech specialists of that era? These were the circumstances of my characters, Claire and Shep Durant, and their little boy, Ty.

Credit: Viktor Jakovlev on Unsplash

The Durants live in a colonial outpost on a remote island in British India. Here is Claire’s first warning that her nine-month-old might be different from other babies:

Shifting, she kicked Ty’s rattle, and looked down to find that her son had crawled all the way to the opposite wall, where he sat on his bottom, blue sunsuit straining across his shoulders as he reached for the open door. Claire hurried to retrieve him, but she’d only taken a step or two when he sat back and lofted his hands in the air. Facing away from her, his interest had been caught by the light from two stained glass windows across the room. At this hour the tableau of the Peaceable Kingdom streamed in vivid hues onto the door’s smooth white panels.

“That’s a lion,” Claire heard herself say. “And those are his little lambs.” Her family had never been much for churchgoing, and she had only a superficial knowledge of Bible stories, but in this case, the moral was clearly a plea for peace.

Ty reached to pet the lion, but before he touched the door his hand cast a shadow, and the color caught his arm. He spent several seconds examining his golden skin, then his shadow. Then he turned and, oblivious to Claire, raised his face to the stained glass. She could almost see his mind working as he looked from the high window, back to the scene projected onto the door. He studied the slanting bars of color in the air, watched the motes of dust rain through them.

Again, he raised his hands, now grasping. The particles spun faster. “Ty,” she said. “Your hand is red. Now it’s blue.”

The shadow of his arm found the edge of the open door. His lips pursed in silent concentration as he opened and closed his fingers, testing to see if his shadow alone would move the door. When it didn’t, he scowled and scooted forward.

Again, Claire thought she should stop him, but the pointedness of his concentration warned her against it. He wasn’t interested in going through the door; he was transfixed by the changing patterns of light and color that resulted as he pulled the door toward him and pushed it back. Stretch the lion like a snake, or bunch it into a sliver.

“Look what you can do!” The singsong of her voice sounded idiotic as it echoed off the stone walls. When Ty didn’t react, she moved in front of him and knelt down. “Those are shadows, Ty. That’s color.”

She listened for some response. A coo. A consonant. A murmur at the back of the throat.

For a moment he paused and gave her a long impassive stare. He pulled on a lock of his hair. Without making a sound, he returned his attention to the door.

The pang of rejection this triggered in her was ridiculous. Or was it? Babies were supposed to be distractable, weren’t they? And sociable?

Instead, Ty went into his own little world and became all but unreachable. Even when he was nursing lately, his interest would wander off through the window or into the mirror, and he’d fail to eat. Shep said it was normal for some babies to wean themselves early. He was proud of their son’s self-sufficiency, and Jina, too, assured them that they were fortunate to have a son who demanded so little, but at moments like this Ty seemed to Claire unnervingly remote. Maybe she should follow Jina and young Naila’s example and simply let the child lead.

She pulled up a chair and waited while Ty bent his head in and out of the light stream, tried to lick the color in the air, to grasp the separate spears of illumination. If he was disappointed in the results of his experiments, he didn’t show it. Every now and then he rocked forward to reposition himself as the sunbeams shifted, but he never made a sound — or so much as glanced at her for ten full minutes.

The Struggle for Attunement

The struggle to connect with a child who can’t talk poses frustrations for every parent. Emotional attunement — the ability to bond and understand the child nonverbally — is essential. What if someone else establishes that bond, and the parent can’t? This was Claire’s dilemma when the servants’ daughter, a young girl named Naila, started caring for little Ty:

Speechless. He’s ten months old now and has yet to say even ma or pa. Though his tantrums prove that there’s nothing mechanically wrong with his voice, he’s otherwise almost completely silent. I confess that this perturbs me in a way it doesn’t his father. Shep assures me that Ty will speak when he’s good and ready, and I can see for myself that the baby’s otherwise as healthy as he is temperamental. Indeed, as I watch Ty play with the servants’ daughter, a girl of just eight who seems instinctively to understand his every whim, I wonder if the failure might not lie with me.

Nabil Naidu on Unsplash

The Threat of Jealousy

The emotional burden is not limited to the mother of a child with Einstein Syndrome. Between jealousy over a child’s affections and frustration over the most basic communications, fathers feel the pressure, too. Some might be tempted to walk away. Others may feel compelled to find a quick fix. Still others will try to act as mediators. This was Shep’s inclination:

Whether Ty’s bond with Naila was related to Claire’s intermittent absences, or to the same complex of factors that kept Ty from talking, or perhaps to something Shep himself had done wrong, he had no idea. But it made his head spin and his heart hurt as he watched Claire struggle to connect with their son — struggle without ever admitting how much her child’s rebuffs hurt her. Ty was no more communicative with him, but Shep held a firm conviction that the boy would grow out of this phase and bond with them in time — especially once they’d left Port Blair and returned to a world where he could see how happy families were supposed to live.

The problem may have seemed more personal to Claire because of Ty’s temper fits as a baby. They’d persisted for over a year, and Shep suspected that Claire blamed herself for them. One minute, Ty was engrossed in some activity — rolling a ball, or splashing water, or studying a dragon-fly — and the next, he’d simply erupt. Screams. Fists. Spitting and kicking. The amount of energy he expelled in each episode could have lit up Ross Island all night.

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A Mother’s Love

Glorious Boy tells this family’s story in the context of World War II, which introduces many crises far larger than Ty’s speech delay, but at its heart this is a book about the power of a mother’s love to overcome and endure, no matter what the obstacles.

In the end, it’s a power that transcends words:

He lurks behind the field glasses. In the garden. On the veranda. Across the road and down by the river. Kites and falcons, his targets. He watches them rise and float on the updrafts, circling the sky, biding their time and sometimes hovering like malevolent stars, then diving at speeds of more than a hundred miles an hour to seize the prey they’ve been stalking from on high. A snake. A rat. A lizard. A newborn macaque or pye-dog. Always small, unsuspecting, and weak.

He can’t see the kill but waits for the lumbering flight that follows, the extra muscle required in the wings, the dangling silhouette of a life- less tail or paw or head skimming just above the trees. When at last he lowers the glasses, his face is calm and solemn as if to say, That’s why.

And she wants to gather him into her arms then, to close his green eyes with kisses, to smooth the cool heel of her palm against his unsuspecting brow. Instead, she smiles and nods and extends her hand. Increasingly, he takes it.

Aimee Liu is the author of the new novel Glorious Boy. She teaches in Goddard College’s low-residency MFA in Creative Writing Program at Port Townsend, WA. Sign up for her newsletter at aimeeliu.net

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Aimee Liu is the bestselling author of the novels Glorious Boy, Flash House, Cloud Mountain, and Face and memoirs Gaining and Solitaire. More@ aimeeliu.net

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