The Savant Syndrome in Autistic Disorder

The word “savant” comes from the French savoir, which means “to know.” A savant is a “knowledgeable person”—a person who knows a lot of things and has a remarkable memory.

The Savant Syndrome is thought to be a rare but extraordinary condition in which individuals with serious mental disabilities including Autistic Disorder have astonishing areas of brilliance, ability or talent—so called “islands of genius”—that stand in marked, incongruous contrast to overall handicap or things they cannot do.

Individuals with savant skills are often able to perform tasks better than “normal” people because they have direct access to primary areas of the brain and experience no interference from language Opens in new window (Grandin 2006).

Savant individuals are geniuses in certain expertises and can display:

  • musical and artistic ability (mastering musical instrument with little or no instruction),
  • an extraordinary memory for spelling,
  • mathematical abilities,
  • calendar calculating,
  • geographical ability (reading maps, remembering directions, locating places),
  • mechanical abilities (taking part and putting together complex mechanical and electric equipment),
  • a remarkable ability to balance objects,
  • spatial skills (estimating the size or distance of objects with great accuracy and creating extremely detailed drawings) and
  • outstanding knowledge in a specific field (such as, for example, history, navigation, statistics).

Other skills, reported less often, include the ability to speak numerous languages, a perfect sense of passing time without looking at the clock, and an unusually sharp sense of smell, touch, and sight. Whatever the particular savant skill, it is always linked to massive memory.

Although savant syndrome occurs in other developmental disabilities, it is of special interest in autistic disorder because as many as one in 10 persons with autistic disorder have such remarkable abilities in varying degrees, a much higher incidence than any other CNS disorders such as mental retardation, brain injury or disease.

The best known autistic savant in the literature is a fictional one, Raymond Babbitt, as portrayed by Dustin Hoffman in the 1988 movie Rain Man Opens in new window, which brought the savant syndrome to public interest. It was a box office hit and won four Academy Awards.

In the movie, actor Dustin Hoffman Opens in new window plays Raymond Babbitt Opens in new window, an autistic savant. This character was based on a real person, Kim Peek Opens in new window, a nonautistic savant, who has memorized over 6000 books and has encyclopedic knowledge of geography, music, literature, history, sports and nine other areas of expertise (Peek & Hanson 2008).

Peek can name all the US area codes and major city zip codes. He has also memorized the maps in the front of telephone books and can tell you precisely how to get from one US city to another, and then how to get around in that city street by street. He also has calendar-calculating abilities and, more recently, rather advanced musical talent has surfaced.

Of unique interest is his ability to read extremely rapidly, simultaneously scanning one page with the left eye and the other page with the right eye. However, the character and the story of Rain Man Opens in new window are not based on Peek’s life alone. Raymond is a composite of savant abilities and autistic characteristics from a number of real-life autistic savants.

Dustin Hoffman spent time with several savants and their families to learn the characteristics of autism and the types of special abilities savants show. For example, Hoffman observed that one savant had the ability to perform large math calculations very quickly.

Another savant was able to count, at astonishing speed, the number of toothpicks that fell to the floor from a box. Hoffman wove together the abilities of these and other savants to play the character of Raymond.

Real-life savants have excelled in areas such as music (both playing and composing) and in arts such as painting and drawing. Some have displayed extraordinary mathematical abilities.

At the same time, savants may be impaired in their motor abilities. They may not be able to dress or bath themselves or take care of basic daily needs such as eating and hygiene.

In 1964 the case of the calendar calculating twins was one of the first studies of savants presented to the scientific community. The twin brothers were autistic and were able to calculate the weekday of each calendar date spanning thousands of years from the past to the future.

For example, if someone asked them on what day of the week November 7, 1472, fell, they would be able to calculate the answer (Thursday) quickly in their heads. They also enjoyed entertaining themselves by going back and forth naming large prime numbers (numbers that can be divided evenly only by themselves).

More recent savants include Gilles Tréhin (born 1972) of Nice, France. Tréhin has autism. His savant abilities include learning to master the upright bass (a musical instrument) without instruction.

Tréhin has extraordinary artistic abilities also. He has created a unique, imaginary city, Urville, drawing it with exquisite detail and perspective. Tréhin can also perform incredible mental calculations. For example, he can immediately tell that a large number, such as 4,187, is a prime number.

Brittany Maier (born 1989) is one of the very few female savants in the world. She has been diagnosed with autism and other developmental disorders. She is also blind. But she has astonishing savant abilities in music.

Without formal training, she has perfect pitch and recall. She only needs to listen to elaborate musical compositions once to reproduce them exactly at the piano. She also composes her own music.

Only 10 percent of people with autism are said to have savant skills. However, if we move away from spectacular skills (like the ability to perform a musical piece after hearing it only once, or outstanding drawing abilities, or calendar calculating), we will see that due to the differences of their sensory perceptual and cognitive processes all individuals with autism can do something non-autistic people cannot (Daria 2008), while being helpless at some skills which are considered basic.

Donna Williams urges us to realize that savant skills can and do extend beyond art, music and calendar memories:

In my experience, [the savant skills] can extend into mimicry, speed-reading, automatic writing, the acquisition of foreign languages and, in some cases, to the intermittent presence of so-called clairvoyance Opens in new window. Taking into account these wider areas in which savant skills may be found, a larger percentage of so-called savants be present among the autistic population than is presently realized (Williams 1996, pp. 254–255)

Unlike recognized savant skills (that are spectacular because normal people can achieve them only with a lot of practice and hard work), other skills that only autistic people possess are not recognized because the normal population cannot even imagine that they exist. For example sensing time:

My autistic son cannot tell the time (I’ve spent hours teaching him how to read time but did not succeed) but he seems to sense it. Recently he left me baffled when he said, “My clock is ten minutes slow.” ( I have to explain here that we have only one clock and it is in his room, the rest of us use wrist watches. He has no mobile phone or computer to see the “right” time.) First I thought he was just confused and didn’t know what he was talking about, but then I went into his room, looked at his clock (and then at my watch) and found that he was absolutely right — his clock was ten minutes slow! It was time to replace the battery.

There have been other strange cases that I cannot explain. Like, for example, eight years ago (my son was 11 then) when we were in the Lake District on the beach and I asked my partner what time it was, and before he could answer, our son loudly announced “Quarter past two”.

Need I say, that it was quarter past two? Of course, the first explanation that sprang in my mind was “it’s just a coincidence,” but there have been so many coincidences since then that it begs a question: Are they coincidences, or is he able to sense the time?

What causes an individual to have savant abilities together with dramatic disabilities has long been a mystery. However, here’s what we know today Opens in new window.

    The data for this work have resourced from the manual:
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