This post is part of a series of guest posts on GPS by the graduate students in my Psychopathology course. As part of their work for the course, each student had to demonstrate mastery of the skill of “Educating the Public about Mental Health.” To that end, each student has to prepare two 1,000ish word posts on a particular class of mental disorders.
Autistic Savants and Savant Syndrome by Nicole Beasler
Autistic savant is a term that refers to individuals with autism who have some outstanding area of expertise or ability that are in stark contrast to their overall limitations. There are many forms of savant abilities, with the most common involving incredible feats of memory, mathematical calculations, or artistic or musical abilities. Savant syndrome was first recognized by Dr. J. Langdon Down (yes, he is also the person for whom Down syndrome gets its name) but he first called it “idiot savant” which he did not mean it as an insulting term. The word idiot was accepted at the time to describe a person with an IQ below 25 and “savant” came from the French word savior meaning knowing or wise. By putting the two terms together he was describing what he observed in these individuals, which was a remarkable ability despite an overall mental disability. This term has been replaced with savant syndrome now because the word idiot is a derogatory term in today’s world.
In 1988 when the move Rain Man starring Dustin Hoffman playing the part of an autistic savant hit theaters most people were not familiar with the term, but almost overnight it became a household word. Although, it also created a myth that all people suffering from autism are savants and vice versa. In reality only about 50% of savants actually have autism.
As noted above, only about 50% of savants have autism, but also only about one in ten persons with autism have savant skills. So it is important to remember: not all savants are autistic, and not all autistic persons are savants. There are different types of savant skills, but they seem to fall in a fairly consistent group as detailed in the following table taken from a paper written by Dave Hiles titled simply, Savant Syndrome.
- Memorization – superior memory is a common feature of savant syndrome, but it also can be a special skill in its own right. There are cases of savants who have memorized population statistics, telephone books, bus schedules, and in one remarkable case the 9 volume edition of Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians.
- Lightening calculation – this is exhibited in the instantaneous calculation of multiplications, square roots, etc, the determination of prime numbers, or subitizing.
- Calendar calculating – often involving the ability to identify the day of the week upon which a particular date falls, in one case any time in the last, or next, forty thousand years!!
- Musical ability – this is a relatively common savant skill, the co-occurrence of musical genius, blindness and learning disability is a striking feature here. Savants will have perfect pitch, and can play a complete piece of music after hearing it only once.
- Artistic ability – not as common as musical abilities, but there are savants with exceptional painting, sculpture and especially drawing skills.
- Language ability – this is fairly rare, but there is one well documented case of a savant with CNS damage since birth who could read write and translate 15 to 20 languages.
Darold A. Treffert has probably spent more time studying Savant Syndrome than anyone else in the world. He has been studying savants for over 50 years and he was also a consultant on the above mentioned movie, Rain Man. He has written two books on the subject, Extraordinary People: Understanding Savant Syndrome and Islands of Genius: The Bountiful Mind of the Autistic, Acquired and Sudden Savant. He is considered one of the top experts in the field of savants.
In an in-depth interview for Psychology Today, Dr. Treffert explained why he called his latest book “Islands of Genius”. He said it was 1962 when he met his first savant and he remembered how he was so impressed with his special ability. He said in his mind he had the picture of an island of genius in the sea of disability and that had always stuck with him. He said these “islands of genius” are so striking when you see them, especially in someone with a severe disability.
Dr. Treffert has a website he calls “In search of the Rain Man within us all … that has many interesting articles as well as videos including one very interesting presentation titled Extraordinary People: The Savant Syndrome where he calls savant syndrome the UFO of neuroscience. He says that until we can explain savant syndrome and what causes it we will never fully understand the human brain. He believes that if we can unlock the workings of the savant mind we may discover that we have a little Rain Man in each of us. He calls it the untapped potential of the brain that for whatever reason these people who have savant syndrome, many of them also are autistic, have been able to tap into inadvertently. Dr. Treffert goes on to explain that there is a distinction to be made between a prodigy, a genius, and a savant. A savant is somebody with a disability who also has some remarkable ability. Prodigies and geniuses have the remarkable abilities that the savant shows, but without the disability. That disability does not have to be autism, but it has to be some type of disability or they are not a savant.
There is much debate about how savant calendar calculators are able to name the day of the week of past and future dates at such speed despite considerable intellectual disability with other types of memory tasks. Some people have tried to explain it by saying the savant must spend an enormous amount of time memorizing the calendar, but that is not possible. Most people now realize it has to be a difference in the way their brains process and calculate calendrical information.
The same can be said for virtually all of the different categories of savant skills. Although much research has been done in an attempt to understand how they do it, little is really understood yet about how their minds work. It is agreed on by many researchers that savants use their right brain more than their left brain. This may be due to a left brain injury with right brain compensation, or it may be a birth defect. It has been shown on brain imaging that savants often show left brain deficits or damage.
In most cases the isolated skill that the savant has serves no practical purpose. It would be a big step forward if (and hopefully when) researchers and psychologists are able help these people learn how to take their special skill and put it to use in either employment or at the least greater social integration.