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What is an Autistic Savant (or Savantism)?

August 5, 2021


Savantism—that mystical, psychological phenomena that’s captured the world’s imagination ever since the movie Rain Man showcased the prodigious memory of an autistic savant. More than a fascination with the extraordinary, research about savantism could unlock useful information about nurturing genius talent associated with the neurodivergent mind.

What is an Autistic Savant (or Savantism)?

Are savants neurodivergent superheroes? Savantism does conjure up an almost superhuman image. Someone with an extraordinary talent, almost unreal in its scope and genius, and yet it is superimposed with their kryptonite—because a savant’s genius is usually found alongside impairments and symptoms related to developmental disabilities, brain injuries or autism.

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If you think superhero may be an exaggeration, just watch Stephen Wiltshire draw the skyline of a metropolis, with exquisite detail, after flying over it once. Imagine drawing a city like Tokyo on a 10 meter canvas from memory—superhuman may be an appropriate adjective after all.

Or how about a complicated musical piece, played with perfection, after a single hearing. Mind-boggling mathematical equations calculated in seconds without a calculator; or determining the day a specific date fell on 50 years ago? It is little wonder that savantism is considered one of the most fascinating psychological concepts, capturing people’s imaginations and fuelling magical myths.

What is a savant?

Savant syndrome is a condition that is rare and extraordinary. People with autism or some other developmental disability may develop or possess an “island of genius” in contrast to the deficits often associated with their condition (Treffert, 2009).

Savants have these abilities (genius skills) in defined areas and they excel in these areas to a remarkable degree despite—or because of—brain injuries, disease or cognitive impairment. These “islands of genius” are usually found in the spheres of maths, music, and art. These spectacular skills are always linked in some way to memory.

The terms savant syndrome and autistic savant are sometimes used interchangeably. It is important to note, however, that not all savants are on the autism spectrum. While more than half of those with savant abilities are autistic, the rest may have another type of cognitive condition like a CNS injury or disease (Treffert, 2009). Therefore “savant syndrome” is a more accurate description of the concept than “autistic savant”.

Savant syndrome and autism

Savant syndrome and its link to autism may be due to a detail-fixation, or a weak central coherence that may be present in both conditions. Weak coherence may underlie many of the symptoms experienced by people with autism, for example insistence on sameness, attention to parts of objects and possibly even savant skills (Happè & Frith, 2006). 

The savant aspect of autism induces fascination, particularly from the media. Sometimes it is the only thing people expect from an autistic child, to be a numerical genius unlocking mathematical mysteries. 

Understandably, the autism community finds these generalizations annoying: savantism is a single aspect of autism, and most individuals on the spectrum are not savants. Being a highly intelligent autistic person does not equate to being a savant; conversely savantism is not always linked to high intelligence in the usual sense.

But perhaps the media attention, and general fascination with extraordinary skills in autistic individuals, should be encouraged. Research is coming around to the fact that many autistic individuals possess outstanding skills. Autism has a history of being defined in terms of impairments and deficits—and while there are undeniably challenging symptoms making daily living difficult for individuals and those caring for them—there is a movement towards acknowledging the strengths and worth of the neurodivergent mind.

In this regard a study (Meilleur et al. 2015) found a prevalence of special isolated skills in 62.5% of the autistic individuals participating in the study. Add to this the estimation that between 10 and 30% of people with autism spectrum disorders have savant skills (Daniel & Menashe, 2020) and it makes sense to research the link between autism, special skills and savantism.

This goes further than defying stigma and embracing neurodiversity; special skill and savant abilities may be the key to helping autistic children thrive. The author of various research and studies about savant syndrome, Dr. Darold Treffert, had a message of hope and “training the talent” for children with autism (Perner, 2012).

The case for nurturing savant skills

Dr. Temple Grandin (Grandin, 1992), one of the best known autistic advocates, used the following quote to demonstrate the power of educators when it comes to the future of the autistic child: “A skilled and imaginative teacher prepared to enjoy and be challenged by the child seems repeatedly to have been a deciding factor in the success and educational placement of high-functioning autistic children.” (Newson, Dawson, & Everard, 1982).

Dr. Grandin then goes on to list examples of talented and educated autistic individuals (some with PhD degrees) sitting at home because of a lack of mentoring. Dr. Grandin shares that her work is her life, and she feels that an interesting job provides fulfillment for high-functioning individuals on the spectrum (Grandin, 1992).

If (according to research) plenty of people with autism have special skills, and as many as a third may possess some variant of a savant skill, it seems as though nurturing these talents should be prioritized. When discussing savant skills, Dr. Grandin feels that such talents “need to be nurtured and broadened out into something useful.” (Grandin, 1992).

To nurture savant and special skills in autistic children, these abilities have to be understood. Information pertaining to how these skills develop and how they are either honed or lost should also be examined to help parents and teachers optimize neurodivergent strengths.

Are all of us (latent) savants?

Snyder (2009) argues that we are all latent savants. The argument is based on the fact that savant skills may arise spontaneously; or the fact that such skills can be artificially induced by low-frequency repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation.

While this may sound like something in the realm of science fiction, savant-like skills can be induced by inhibiting a specific part of the brain. In a study titled Switching skills on by turning off part of the brain, (Young et al., 2004) a hypothesis about savantism was tested. The authors wanted to determine accessibility of savant skills to a neurotypical mind by interrupting functioning of the frontotemporal lobe using repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). 

Research by Rimland (1978) indicates that autistic savant abilities are often associated with the right brain hemisphere, whereas deficits are mostly associated with functions of the left brain hemisphere. Miller et al. (1998) concluded the emergence of artistic skills in patients with a loss of cognitive functions like language and social skills due to frontotemporal dementia. 

Acquired savant syndrome is often the result of trauma to the left brain hemisphere, although this is rare and brain injuries very rarely lead to genius skills being discovered. Inhibiting functioning of the left brain hemisphere through TMS for the study mentioned above (Young et al., 2004) found enhanced savant-type skills in some of the participants. 

One of the most important theories dealing with acquired savant syndrome may be Dr. Treffert’s damage compensation theory of savantism. Treffert suggests that damage to the left hemisphere of the brain releases the right brain from the “tyranny of the left, or dominant, hemisphere”, and furthermore allows compensation by the right brain (for damage sustained in the left hemisphere) resulting in the development of prodigious or savant talent (Treffert, 2009).

These results shed light on the area of the brain involved in savant syndrome, and also create curiosity about the future of inducing savant abilities in neurotypical individuals—and the ethical implications this may entail.


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Inspirational savants

If you want to marvel at just how powerful the human brain can be, you may want to search for savants on your streaming service. Watching Daniel Tammet set the record for pi memorization—memorizing 22, 514 digits in a little over five hours—may tickle curiosity as to the origins of savant skills.

Congenital savants

Savant skills usually emerge during childhood, co-occurring with conditions like autism or a developmental disability which is present from birth. Raymond Babbitt, the main character in the movie Rain Man, was inspired by one of the most memorable megasavants of our time, Kim Peek.

Kim, who died in 2009, was born with severe brain abnormalities. His impaired coordination meant he only learned to walk at the age of four. He displayed incredible savant skills from a very early age, memorizing entire books when he was just over a year old. Dr. Treffert referred to Kim as the “Mount Everest of memory”. Clearly Kim was born with savant abilities, in contrast to savants who acquire such skills, usually after a brain injury or disease.

Acquired savant syndrome

Derek Amato’s life changed when he dove into a Jacuzzi, leading to a severe concussion. The accident was the catalyst to savant musical ability. Derek, who had not demonstrated musical talent before the accident, almost instantaneously acquired prodigious savant skills in composing complex music.

Acquired savant syndrome and the astounding accounts of people basically waking up to accidental genius is probably behind much of the research striving to assess whether we all have underlying savant talents. 

All of us? Because in most of these accounts it does seem as though men are more likely to be at the receiving end of savant skills. Research reveals little about savantism in women. Whether this is because savantism is mostly a male phenomenon or because it is underdiagnosed (like autism) in females will have to be determined by more studies. Clinical research is needed to determine the presence of savant skills in women and girls; especially as factors like masking could skew statistics.

Female savant Nadia Chomyn

One example of a female savant is Nadia Chomyn. Nadia’s parents observed developmental delays in their daughter from an early age and she was eventually diagnosed with autism. But while the little girl struggled with milestones like feeding and dressing herself; on another front she excelled. She started drawing—not the stick figures one would expect from a three-year-old—she drew precise and proportional representations of carousels and horses.

When Nadia was nine years old, her savant skill regressed, possibly as she gained rudimentary social skills (Seifel, 1977). Dr. Temple Grandin discussed this loss of savant skills, and she believes that savant skills need encouragement to improve. She advocates for providing the equipment needed to improve talent (saying that Nadia needed proper drawing equipment) and explained how her own drawing improved after observing talented individuals and obtaining the correct equipment (Grandin, 1992).

Encouraging and utilising savant skills

As fascinating as savant skills are, we need more research to help those with savant syndrome to nurture such talents. Maybe the above example of Nadia Chomyn shows that savant skills should not be neglected in favor of social and communication skills, but rather, savant abilities should be encouraged and shaped to help the individual contribute to society in a way which makes them feel needed and valued. 

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Savantism and autism are both conditions where extraordinary skills are found along with challenging symptoms that may cause difficulties in everyday life. For neurodivergent minds to thrive, we need research to provide concrete ways to nurture strengths (like special and savant skills) rather than exclusively trying to fix so-called deficits. Because, if there is one thing that savantism proves, it is that impairments are sometimes the gateway to genius.

References:

Daniel, E., Menashe, I. Exploring the familial role of social responsiveness differences between savant and non-savant children with autism. Sci Rep 10, 2255 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-59209-7

Grandin T. (1992) An Inside View of Autism. In: Schopler E., Mesibov G.B. (eds) High-Functioning Individuals with Autism. Current Issues in Autism. Springer, Boston, MA. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4899-2456-8_6

Happé, F., & Frith, U. (2006). The weak coherence account: detail-focused cognitive style in autism spectrum disorders. Journal of autism and developmental disorders, 36(1), 5–25. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-005-0039-0

Levinson, B. (1988). Rain Man. United Artists.

Meilleur, A. A., Jelenic, P., & Mottron, L. (2015). Prevalence of clinically and empirically defined talents and strengths in autism. Journal of autism and developmental disorders, 45(5), 1354–1367. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-014-2296-2

Newson, E., Dawson, M., and Everard, P. (1982). The Natural History of Able Autistic People: Management and Functioning in a Social Context. London: Report to the Department of Health and Social Security.

Perner L, ed. (2012) Scholars With Autism Achieving Dreams. Sedona, AZ: Auricle Books

Rimland, B. (1978). Savant capabilities of autistic children and their cognitive implications. In G. Serban (Ed.), Cognitive defects in the development of mental illness (p. 43–65). Brunner/Mazel.

Seifel, L. (1977). Nadia: A case of extraordinary drawing ability in an autistic child. New York: Academic Press.

Snyder A. (2009). Explaining and inducing savant skills: privileged access to lower level, less-processed information. Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological sciences, 364(1522), 1399–1405. https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2008.0290

Treffert D. A. (2009). The savant syndrome: an extraordinary condition. A synopsis: past, present, future. Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological sciences, 364(1522), 1351–1357. https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2008.0326

Young, R. L., Ridding, M. C., & Morrell, T. L. (2004). Switching skills on by turning off part of the brain. Neurocase, 10(3), 215–222. https://doi.org/10.1080/13554790490495140

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