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Autism and Savant Syndrome

The condition is rare but one in 10 autistic persons show some savant skills.

Savant syndrome is a rare, but extraordinary, condition in which persons with serious mental disabilities, including autistic disorder, have some ‘island of genius’ which stands in marked, incongruous contrast to an overall handicap.

Savant skills can exist in a variety of areas, but most savants show skills in art (e.g. hyper-detailed drawings), music (proficiency in musical instrument playing), maths (fast mental arithmetic), calendar calculation (the ability to provide the day of the week for any given date), and memory recall of facts, events, numbers etc. Whatever the particular savant skill, it is always linked to massive memory.

Many people have a natural fascination with autistic savants. After all, what is more incredible than a person who appears deeply disabled in most respects but has powers that are almost super-human in other ways? In different cases, savants have exhibited the ability to:

  • Memorize books simply by glancing at the pages and exhibiting perfect recall of every word.
  • Extraordinary feats of numeric calculation, such as being able to figure out the day of the week for any given date in seconds.
  • Musical genius, such as being able to play instruments instantly and expertly on first picking them up.
  • Advanced language learning skills.
  • An ability to measure exact distances visually without the aid of instruments.

A well-known example of a prodigious savant is the artist Stephen Wiltshire, who is capable of drawing hyper-detailed cityscapes from memory and who also has autism.

These abilities seem nearly supernatural and draw a considerable amount of attention. But this fascination also leads to a lot of misconceptions.

Some of the most damaging are those that assume that all savants are autistic. This is far from the case; in fact, only about half of all savants suffer from autism. Savants are, however, more likely to at least have some symptoms common to autism.

There is also a strong positive genetic correlation between the two phenomena. Studies have shown that families with an increased likelihood of having autistic children also have an increased chance of producing savants.

Savantism is more common among autistic individuals. In fact, about 10 percent of people with autism are recognized savants. Within the general population, they make up only about 1 percent of people. And, although they often suffer from developmental disabilities, not all savants are disabled in other ways—some are simply typical individuals in every way other than their particular savant skills.

Despite the extraordinary abilities, there is no clear link between IQ or level of function and being a savant. Very low-function or low IQ individuals with autism can have savant abilities. On the other hand, high-functioning or high IQ individuals with autism may have no extraordinary skills at all.

The fact that many savants are not autistic helps us understand more about autism itself, however. Not all savants are born with their capabilities; some only acquire them after suffering brain injuries. This has allowed scientists to determine, with some degree of precision, the part of the brain responsible for the extraordinary capacities: damage to the left anterior temporal lobe has been shown to cause the condition. Experimental efforts have used transcranial magnetic stimulation to temporarily disable that part of the brain, resulting in temporary savant-like skills in tests.

Just as males outnumber females in autism diagnoses, they far outnumber them in cases of savantism too. Only about one out of every six savants are female. Some preliminary studies indicate that this difference may be due to late-stage developmental impairment in the left hemisphere by extra testosterone exposure in a male fetus. That finding may also have bearing on why autism is more common among boys. Though many questions persist, this offers one more clue to the course and causes of the disorder.

Unfortunately being a savant does not exempt autistic individuals from the typical developmental issues associated with autism spectrum disorder. They still suffer from communication deficits, language developmental delays, problems with social interaction, and sensory issues.





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