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Image: Emmelyn Roettger
Linda Mccarthy  /  Visual Concepts Ltd.
When Emmelyn Roettger was an infant, doctors warned she might have serious delays. It turns out she just needed glasses — and now she’s unstoppable.
By Laura T. Coffey
TODAY contributor
updated 5/1/2012 5:30:00 PM ET 2012-05-01T21:30:00

Emmelyn Roettger loves to write, spell and count. She’s so fascinated by science and space that she rattles off details about nebulas, black holes, Saturn’s rings and Jupiter’s size with ease. She knows that another term for cell division is “mitosis,” and that caterpillars turn into butterflies through “metamorphosis.”

Emme just turned 3 in April. Her parents felt a rush of gratification and relief in March when she became the youngest U.S. member of the high-IQ society Mensa — and here’s why.

Story: In Mensa or not, this tot proves she’s still a tot

When Emme was an infant, doctors had diagnosed her with “unspecified delays” and cautioned that she might have autism. Her mom and dad were heartsick when they observed that, at 9 months old, Emme seemed to avoid eye contact and never reached for toys or tried to crawl.

Right around that time, Emme’s mother, Michelle Horne, was overcome by a hunch. She asked to have her daughter’s vision checked.

“It turned out that she just needed glasses!” recalled Horne, 41, a former sixth-grade science teacher who lives in the D.C. area. “It was so obvious that any delays she had were vision-related. From there on out, she just took off.”

Courtesy of Michelle Horne
A whole new world opened up to Emme after she got her first pair of glasses at 10 months. This photo was taken shortly after her first birthday.

Recognizing letters at 15 months
Last month, a 4-year-old girl in England with an IQ of 159 — one point below physicist Stephen Hawking’s — grabbed headlines when she qualified for Mensa membership. Mensa accepted Emme as a lifetime member at an even younger age, 2 years and 11 months.

Emme’s parents aren’t Mensa members and they never imagined they’d be seeking such a distinction for their little girl, but their journey in that direction began after Emme was able to see and appreciate the world around her. Horne still remembers the first day she brought her 10-month-old daughter home wearing glasses.

“We walked past a foyer table with family photos in frames, and she physically pulled on me to stop,” Horne said. “She looked at those pictures as if she’d never seen them before.

Internet's response to Mensa tot's potty 911 on TODAY: #smartbutstill3

“After that, she showed an obvious want for things — grabbing at things, trying to get to toys, fussing for things that she couldn’t reach — and she started crawling within a few weeks.”

Emme’s curiosity and verbal skills also began to explode. She began recognizing letters at 15 months old and writing them before she turned 2. Shortly after her second birthday, she could write her name, count to 100, count by 2s, 5s and 10s, and do simple math. She’d ask her parents to spend hours reading books to her, and she’d beg them to flip through her space flash cards one more time.

Image: Emmelyn Roettger in scuba gear at age 2
Courtesy of Michelle Horne
Emme, here at 2 years and 9 months, can tell you that SCUBA stands for "self-contained underwater breathing apparatus." "I always try to teach her things with concrete examples," said her mom.

“I would love to take credit for it, but I think it was just her personality all along,” said Horne, a former sixth-grade science teacher. “We had books like any good parent would, but she just wanted them — books, books, books.”

YouTube: See a video of Emme reading at age 2

Despite the strides Emme was making, her pediatrician kept referring to her as “delayed,” and her mother kept feeling miserable about it. In frustration, Horne began doing sleuth work online to see how she might convince outsiders to agree with what she knew to be true: Her little girl was smart.

Her search led her to the Wechsler Preschool and Primary Scale of Intelligence, a standardized intelligence test designed for children between the ages of 2 1/2 and 7. Emme took the test at 2 years and 10 months and scored in the 99th percentile on all measures. (Her full-scale IQ score was 135.) When Horne learned that Mensa accepts children as members, she submitted Emme’s test scores on a lark.

Story: Whiz kids: These 11 small fry have giant talents

“My husband thought it was a silly idea at first,” Horne said. “I was looking for support, though, and I thought Mensa could be another resource for us.”

Image: Glenn Roettger and Michelle Horne pose for a photo with their daughter, Emmelyn Roettger
Courtesy of Michelle Horne
Glenn Roettger and Michelle Horne pose with their daughter Emme in February, the same month Emme took a pivotal IQ test.

‘Stigma to being very smart’
It turns out that Mensa offers a wealth of support for parents and teachers of bright kids — whether or not those kids actually qualify for Mensa membership or have any interest in joining. (To become a member, a child or adult must score in the top 2 percent on one of about 200 accepted standardized intelligence tests.) The Mensa for Kids website has games, activities, puzzles and even entire lesson plans that can be a boon for teachers and parents in cash-strapped school districts.

Victoria Liguez, marketing manager for American Mensa, said plenty of intelligent children and teens fail to get the stimulation they need in school. In some cases, she said, a phenomenon known as “tall poppy syndrome” is to blame.

“If you have a poppy that grows taller than the rest, you just cut it down to size,” Liguez said. “A lot of schools don’t have time to devote to a smart kid because they figure that kid is fine. ... But you know what? Sometimes ‘bored’ and ‘smart’ is a dangerous combination to have running around the house or around the neighborhood.”

Story: Finding alternatives to middle school’s dramas, traumas
Courtesy of Michelle Horne
Emmelyn Roettger loves to don space suits on science-related family outings. This photo was taken last October at the Goddard Space Flight Center.

While it’s unusual for anyone to qualify for Mensa membership at such a young age, Emme isn’t the first child to join at age 2. Frank Lawlis, American Mensa’s supervisory psychologist and author of “The IQ Answer,” said it can be valuable for parents to have their children tested because “you need to know what’s going on with your kid.” He noted that life can be easier in some ways for kids with sky-high IQs, but harder in other ways.

“There’s a social stigma to being very smart,” Lawlis said. “It can limit a person’s potential for social relationships.”

Story: 11-year-old college grad: I’m no genius

Lawlis said Mensa’s founders envisioned it as an “elite society” when they started it in 1946, but the organization quickly changed its focus and became a “place of nurturance” where people can enjoy each other’s company and guffaw at jokes about prime numbers and Schrödinger’s cat.

“All of their activities are about taking care of each other and supporting each other,” Lawlis said. “I’ve referred a number of people to Mensa because they’re lonely. ... People find their mates there. They find their best friends there.”

Fun outings, fun times
Emme’s parents haven’t thought that far ahead. They just know how much they want their little girl to be happy, stimulated and healthy.

Courtesy of Michelle Horne
Emme started wearing a patch to help correct a lazy eye in April. "She picked out pink with the little mouse on it," said her mom.

They take her to zoos, playgrounds and play dates, and they plan outings that tap into the family’s love of space exploration. They were on hand in April when the Space Shuttle Discovery arrived at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Chantilly, Va., and they climbed inside the Gemini spacecraft at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

A big focus for the family at the moment is addressing Emme’s vision problems in the best possible way while correcting a lazy eye. Emme must wear a patch over her left eye for at least four to six hours a day.

Watch a YouTube video of Emme playing with her science set

Emme’s father, Glenn Roettger, 41, is a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force, and he’s about to be stationed in Germany. Roettger is confirming that the military base has a pediatric ophthalmologist who can treat Emme’s eyes; if so, his entire family can get medical clearance to go.

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“We think it will be great for her because she’ll pick up the language in a snap,” said Horne, Emme’s mother.

Video: Mensa kid proves even a genius tot is still a tot (on this page)

Horne said she and her husband continue to feel overwhelming relief after figuring out what was behind Emme’s apparent developmental delays. At her 3-year wellness check-up, Emme’s doctor agreed, removing “unspecified delays” from her chart.

“This could be a call to parents: Advocate early!” Horne said. “If I hadn’t pushed ... I’m not sure our outcome would be as good.”

Need a Coffey break? Friend TODAY.com writer Laura T. Coffey on Facebook, follow her on Twitter  or read more of her stories at LauraTCoffey.com.

© 2013 NBCNews.com  Reprints

Video: Mensa kid proves even a genius tot is still a tot

Explainer: Whiz kids: These 11 small fry have big talents

  • TODAY

    Mozart started plunking out chords on the family clavier at the age of 3, and was composing by the time he was 5. Too bad little Wolfgang was born a couple of centuries too soon to show off his chops in a TV competition, or even on TODAY — but plenty of other talented tykes display similarly prodigious skills today, in everything from music (like Clara Tu, right, tickling the ivories at the tender age of 6) to sports to amazing feats of mental prowess.

    How amazing, you inquire? We’re glad you asked. Click on the word "next" at left, or click on "Show more items" and keep scrolling down.

  • Baby's got book

    TODAY

    Elizabeth Barrett was only 17 months old when she wowed the nation in March 2008 by reading sheets of paper held up by TODAY’s Ann Curry. Unrehearsed but unhesitant, the tot clearly enunciated such words and phrases as “flower,” “kangaroo,” “take a bath,” “nice to meet you” and “Good morning, Ann.”

    It may have helped that little Elizabeth’s parents, Katy and Michael Barrett of Lubbock, Texas, are both speech pathologists who taught their daughter sign language right along with how to talk. Still, they were both astonished when, at 13 months, Elizabeth read aloud the word “corn” off a cereal box in the supermarket — especially because there was no picture of corn next to it. “I think she has some special abilities,” Michael told Curry.

    Nobody argued with him — especially after Curry wrote a new word in script to show Elizabeth. Anticipating that his little daughter wouldn’t recognize the unfamiliar flowing letters, Michael Barrett started to tell Curry: “That’s cursive — ”

    “Ba-by,” Elizabeth interrupted.

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  • At age 9, he's a guitar hero

    TODAY

    Eric Clapton picked up the guitar at age 13, whereas Jimi Hendrix waited until he was 15. But Tallinn La started strumming at 4 — and by age 9, he was playing licks so hot that even blues legend Buddy Guy called him “amazing.”

    “I love playing in front of people because I love to put smiles on people’s faces,” Tallinn told NBC News. But at least one person wasn’t smiling: After officials received an anonymous complaint, the state of Wisconsin banned the boy guitar hero from playing in clubs.

    As a result, Tallinn started playing festivals instead. But his father, Carl La, told Matt Lauer that he doesn’t push his son to perform: “Everything is up to Tallinn.” Still, Tallinn insisted that “20 years from now I'll be doing the exact same thing I’m doing now. I’m going to keep playing music no matter what.”

    To prove his point, the young  — who sports stylish sunglasses and handed Lauer a business card that read “Tallinn the T-Man La” — picked up his ax and played a red-hot rendition of the Jimi Hendrix blues number “Red House.”

    Video: Watch Tallinn La display his guitar chops on TODAY

  • Fore! (Or should that be: Four!)

    TODAY

    All Todd Haynes had set out to do that day was videotape his 4-year-old son, Nolan, taking a swing with a golf club. Instead, he may have documented the start of a championship career.

    To capture Nolan teeing off 80 yards from the pin on a par 3, “I sat up by the green, but I couldn’t see the hole,” Todd explained to TODAY’s Lester Holt. “I kind of watched it go towards the pin and I was like, ‘Man, that’s really close.’ ”

    But when Todd went to look for the ball, it was nowhere in sight. Just to check, he told Nolan to look in the hole. When Nolan reached in and produced the ball, “I lost it,” Todd told Holt. “I started crying.”

    He was so overcome, wife Tiffany told Holt, that he had trouble telling her what had happened and had to hand the phone to little Nolan. “Mom, I just got a hole-in-one,” the boy told her. “And Daddy's crying.”

    And it wasn’t a fluke; in a subsequent 9-hole game with his dad, Nolan shot in the 40s, albeit from tee boxes adjusted for his size. Holt asked Todd what he planned to do on the inevitable day that his son started out-golfing him.

    “That's when I move his tee boxes back,” Haynes replied.

    Video: Watch Nolan Haynes discover he’s shot a hole-in-one

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    Moshe Kai Cavalin likes to tell about the time his father took him to take his college entrance test. The administrators told his dad he couldn’t bring an 8-year-old with him into the test room. His father told them the boy was the one taking the test.

    Afterward, the administrators were telling his dad something else — that Moshe needed to be taking advanced mathematics. So when Moshe visited TODAY at age 10, he had just completed his second year at East Los Angeles College, a community college.

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    Related video: See Moshe Kai Cavalin on TODAY

  • How do you get to Carnegie Hall?

    TODAY

    Everybody knows the punch line to the old joke about how you get to Carnegie Hall: Practice, practice, practice. But that hardly explains how little Clara Tu of Southland, Conn., got booked for three dates at the famed venue in May 2010. After all, how much practice could she have gotten in by the age of 6?

    Maybe self-confidence helped. When Clara appeared on TODAY after one of the Carnegie engagements, Matt Lauer asked her: “Were you nervous at all?”

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    “How do you think you did?” Lauer pressed gently.

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    Video: Watch Clara Tu play piano on TODAY

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    So many Ivy League colleges, so little time. That was the dilemma facing Lukas , a New York teenager who, only five years after emigrating from Poland, applied to seven Ivies — and was accepted by every one of them.

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    He declined Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Dartmouth, Penn, Cornell, Georgetown, Stanford and New York University in favor of — who else? — Harvard.

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  • Prosthetic puts golf prodigy, 10, in the swing

    Golfing prodigy Ian Millar
    BNPS.co.uk
    It’s remarkable enough that Leo Millar could drive a golf ball 100 yards at the age of 10. What made it even more amazing is that he did it despite being born without fingers on his right hand. “He has been told that he has a perfect golf swing — it is textbook,” dad Ian Millar told a London newspaper.

    Bob Watts of the Dorset Orthopaedic company, a renowned developer of prosthetics, was so impressed with Leo’s gift for golf that he came up with a gift of his own — a golf prosthetic free of charge. The silicone sleeve around Leo’s right wrist enables him to insert any golf club into a handle holder that rotates 90 degrees as he swings. The result: Leo quickly doubled his drive distance to 200 yards.

    Now Leo dreams of the day he can join the pro tour. And according a spokesman for the Royal & Ancient, golf’s international ruling body, it could happen: “If there are no particularly unusual features of the prosthetic hand I’m sure it would be absolutely fine.” Fore!

    Read more about golf prodigy Leo Millar

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    Move over, Michelle Bachmann. Make way, Mitt Romney. Noah McCullough is declaring his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination.

    In 2032, that is. Noah was only 13 when he appeared on the TODAY show to discuss his White House aspirations and, oh yes, plug his — believe it or not — second book, “First Kids: The True Stories of All the Presidents’ Children.”

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    Viewers who didn’t happen to have their eyes on their TV screens when Gabi Wilson started singing her idol Alicia Keys’ song “No One” on TODAY could be forgiven if they did double takes to see where that big voice was coming from. Certainly Hoda Kotb and everyone else in Studio 1A gaped at the 10-year-old behind the baby grand piano.

    Aside from her angelic voice, the youngster from Villejo, Calif., plays lead guitar, bass and drums as well as piano. At 9, she was opening for band like the Ohio Players. At 10, she played the legendary Apollo in New York.

    Gabi came by her prodigious talent naturally: Her father was a teen-age music prodigy who grew up to lead his own band. “When I was still in my mom’s stomach, my dad and his band used to practice in the living room and I’d hear a lot,” Gabi explained as her parents smiled off-camera.

    And aside from her music talent, the small superstar was calm and self-possessed in front of millions of TODAY viewers. “I feel like I’m just in the living room,” she said. And via TV and recordings, she’s probably going to be in a lot more living rooms soon.

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    Jan Silva was almost literally born on a tennis court: his mother was on one when she went into labor with him.

    And less than six years later, he was still on one set up outside the TODAY studio to demonstrate a tennis game better than most adults play, including topspin forehands, overhead smashes, and a killer one-handed backhand — all with an adult-size racket nearly as big as himself.

    Jan’s talent is so staggering that his whole family moved to France so he could attend Mouratoglou Tennis Academy, at the academy’s expense. Still, he's only 5: Occasionally, he has to be bribed with ice cream to practice.

    Don’t worry, Meredith Vieira told Jan: “You’ll get ice cream today after this.”

    Related video: See Jan Silva play tennis on TODAY

  • This college prof is too young to drink

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    You could say Alia Sabur got an early start. At 8 months old, she was already talking and reading. By age 5 she had finished elementary school, and by 10 she was in college. At 14, she earned a B.S. in applied mathematics summa cum laude from Stonybrook University — the youngest female ever to do it.

    After earning an M.S. and a Ph.D., she was hired as a professor at Konkuk University in Seoul, Korea. She was three days short of 19 — making her the youngest college professor in history, according to Guinness World Records.

    When she appeared on TODAY, Sabur hadn’t started her Korea gig yet, but she had been teaching some math and physics at Southern University in New Orleans. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, “I thought it could be something I do to help,” she told Ann Curry. But though she was old enough to teach in the Big Easy, she was too young to drink in any of its many bars.

    But it would be a different story in Korea. Even though the drinking age there is 20 and Sabur was only 19, Koreans compute age differently, considering a child to be 1 year old at birth. Presto! Instant 20-year-old.

    Related video: See Alia Sabur on TODAY

Photos: Meet 'Mini Monet'

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  1. Meet 'Mini Monet'

    Kieron Williamson, who just turned 8, is drawing collectors from as far as New York City and South Africa to his little British town of Holt. An exhibition of his paintings fetched the equivalent of $235,804 in under 30 minutes. London's Daily Mail dubbed him "Mini Monet." (Alban Donohoe / ©Albanpix.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Wending water

    This pastel by Kieron Williamson is titled "Morston Buoys." (Alban Donohoe / ©Albanpix.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Cloudy view

    Young Kieron Williamson is particularly attracted to landscapes of his native Norfolk, England. (Alban Donohoe / ©Albanpix.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Tide of talent

    This pastel by Kieron Williamson is titled "Morston Low Tide." (Alban Donohoe / ©Albanpix.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. "Wherry at Dusk"

    Another pastel by Kieron Williamson, whose parents say was inspired to start creating landscapes at age 5 during a family vacation. (Alban Donohoe / ©Albanpix.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. "St. Benet's Abbey"

    "We have no garden or outside space," said young artist Kieron Williamson's mother, Michelle. "Perhaps he's had to create his own scenery." (Alban Donohoe / ©Albanpix.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. "City Temple, London"

    Kieron Williamson told the London Daily Mail: “I like painting because it’s fun and inspiring. It makes me think of places I can’t see.” (Alban Donohoe / ©Albanpix.com) Back to slideshow navigation
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    Above: Slideshow (7) Meet ‘Mini Monet’
  2. Fame Pictures
    Slideshow (17) Pint-size prodigy’s paintings sell for $250,000

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