I kept thinking about how these kids could spell words like this, and it dawned on me that there are two likely possibilities. The only way I could imagine them getting these words right was if they were autistic and could memorize everything, like Rain Man, or they were high-IQ kids who had studied language extensively, and knew the rules of spelling words in foreign tongues.
As the competition intensified, one girl finally got momentarily stumped on a word. She spelled it correctly, and then one of the commentators said, "I think we finally had a guess there." They had the words memorized! That put a few points towards my autism theory, as I couldn't imagine anybody memorizing a huge list of random words, hoping those words would be called.
A few words later, the same girl got stumped on another word. She asked for the pronunciation, definition, and country of origin repeatedly, and stared at her hand and drew on it with her other hand for a good 30-40 seconds. I wondered what the hell she was doing. I took this weirdness as more points for my autism theory. She ran out of time, and asked to use her bonus time. She was trying to spell Weldtschmerz, but she used a V instead of a W because of the German pronunciation. When she got it wrong, the other girl was visibly shocked. She was probably spelling it the same way in her head.
This morning I did a google search for 'national spelling bee autism ,' and it brought up many results of autistic kids going to spelling bees, but I couldn't find anything about the winner of this particular competition being autistic. This article, about the winner, says this about how she won:
Kerry's key to victory was memorizing 99 percent of the 23,000 words on a master list used by contest judges, she said. Learning them over five years, despite earlier setbacks at the contest, taught her the value of persistence. Kerry tied for seventh last year.
Every day, according to her mother, Paula, the straight-A student would come home from school, have snacks and milk or sometimes her favorite mint-chip ice cream, walk the dogs, do her homework, listen to music or relax, and study the word list for an hour or two.
Kerry said the trick to memorizing so many words was constant repetition and regular spelling drills by her parents. Such methodical practice, along with the steadfastness under pressure that comes with experience, allowed her to remain calm and composed throughout the contest.