Savant Syndrome And Autism: A Parent’s Perspective

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My son, Zachary, is autistic, but does not appear to have any special “savant” abilities.  This is fine with me.  He is a great kid and doesn’t have to have special abilities to be a good person who loves and helps others.  But the issue of “savant” raises interesting questions.  What are savant abilities, how often do they occur, why do they happen, and, perhaps most importantly, how should we as parents of autistic children respond to the presence or absence of these abilities?

What are savant abilities?

Savant abilities are special talents.  They are often imagined as astonishing abilities in counting objects in jars, calculating dates on calendars, perfect pitch, etc. in the setting of an individual who may otherwise be quite intellectually or socially disabled. A good definition, by Darold Treffert in 2009 is as follows:

“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 overall handicap.”

One of the first accounts of an autistic savant was of Thomas Fuller, in 1789.  This individual, who was ”an African slave living in Virginia,” “could comprehend scarcely anything, either theoretical or practical, more complex than counting,” but had amazing powers of calculation. For example, when asked how many seconds a man had lived who was 70 years, 17 days, and 12 hours old, he gave the correct answer of 2,210,500,800 in 90 seconds and even corrected for the 17 leap years the hypothetical man had lived.

The most famous autistic savant is the fictional character, Raymond Babbitt, from the 1988 movie Rain Man.  However, as is so often the case, truth is more interesting than fiction.  The individual who inspired the Raymond Babbitt character is a man who, as of 2008, had memorized over 6000 books and has encyclopedic knowledge of numerous areas of expertise, including geography, music, literature, history, and sports.

Savant skills usually occur in a narrow range of special talents.  These skills are in five general categories:

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  1. Music: usually performance, most often piano, accompanied by perfect pitch.
  2. Art: usually drawing, painting, or sculpting.
  3. Calendar calculations.
  4. Mathematics: this includes lightning-fast calculations or the ability to compute prime numbers.
  5. Mechanical or Spatial Skills: this includes the ability to measure distances precisely without the benefit of instruments, the ability to construct complex models or structures with amazing accuracy, and the mastery of map making and direction finding.

These special skills are always accompanied by a prodigious memory that is characteristically very deep but also very narrow, within the confines of the individual’s special skill.

There is also a spectrum of levels of savant ability. The most common presentation of savant abilities are people who present with so-called “splinter skills.”  These skills include obsessive preoccupation with, and memorization of, subjects such as music and sports trivia, license plate numbers, maps, historical facts, or more obscure things like unusual sounds.  “Talented savants” have such special abilities that would be very conspicuous when viewed in contrast to their overall disability.  Finally, “prodigious savants,” who are very rare, have special abilities that would be viewed as outstanding even in a non-impaired person.

It has become a kind of intellectual game for some people to try to guess which famous individuals from the past, such as Sir Isaac Newton, or the present, such as Bill Gates, may have autism as the explanation for their exceptional talents.  Recently, the comedian Jerry Seinfeld briefly stated, then retracted, that he was autistic.  Perhaps the attraction of savant abilities is the possibility of having some aspect of ourselves that is super-human.  Perhaps the attraction is akin to the public’s fascination with magic.  Whatever the explanation, savant abilities are an intriguing aspect of autism.

How often do savant abilities occur?

It is generally accepted that approximately 10% of autistic individuals have savant abilities. However, there is a recent study that places that figure at almost 30%.  Males with savant syndrome outnumber females by about a 6:1 ratio, which is even higher than the roughly 4:1 ratio by which males outnumber females in the diagnosis of autism.  Down (famous for Down’s syndrome) in 1887 coined the (now highly offensive) term “idiot savant,” to signify that individuals with savant abilities also had IQs below 25.  It has been since learned that almost all cases of savant syndrome occur in people with an IQ higher than 40.  In fact, some autistic people with savant syndrome have high IQs.  Hence the more appropriate and dignified term that has arisen: “autistic savant.”  However, savant abilities are not unique to people with autism.  In fact, it appears that about 50% of people with savant abilities have autism while the other 50% have other disabilities.  For example, approximately 1.4 per 1000 people with IQ below 70 have savant abilities.  There are also reports of previously healthy elderly people with fronto-temporal dementia who develop savant abilities. Since half of people with savant abilities are not autistic, the most accepted term now for people with these abilities is “people with savant syndrome.”

Why do people with autism develop savant abilities?

There has been a great deal of scholarly discussion about why savant abilities occur.  The most accepted theoretical explanation at the current time is the concept of veridical mapping (VM). This is defined in a recent paper by Bouvet et al:

“VM is a capacity to detect regularities within and across isomorphic structure (i.e., structures sharing perceptual or structural similarity), at multiple scales. The materials involved in savant abilities are often structured human codes (e.g., written arithmetical, and musical structures) which are also multi-level and redundant (i.e., sentences composed of words composed of letters, songs composed of melodies composed of notes, years composed of months, composed of days).  These materials exist across multiple scales, from very low-level or simple to very high-level or complex, and can be seen as highly isomorphic.”

An example of this is the account of a child with autism who could make amazing estimations of weight, height, and distance.  He reported that he estimated weights, for instance, by using the known weight of a cereal bar and extrapolating.

But veridical mapping has a context.  People with autism and savant abilities have to cultivate these abilities with practice.  Personality features, like detail-focused attention and memory, predispose to the development of savant abilities.  Some authors have suggested that “superior sensory acuity across modalities” underlies this focus on details.  This superior sensory acuity, in turn, leads to the tendency to be interested in, and to master, closed systems like the calendar.

Another theory to help explain savant skills is the “enhanced perceptual functioning theory.” This theory suggests that “locally oriented processing and, specifically, detection of patterns in the environment, underlies the high incidence of savant skills in autism.”  An individual with a bias toward locally oriented processing would excel at focusing on, and perceiving, minute details of an object or a situation (e.g. picking a face out of a crowd), but would be less adept at global processing (putting together piecemeal information to make sense of something).

What does savant syndrome mean to parents of autistic children?

Please let me begin this discussion by stating the obvious: I am one parent of one autistic child. My opinions may not be appropriate for other children on the spectrum, for other parenting styles, or for other cultural contexts.  Please share your comments!

In reading through the discussion, above, of savant syndrome, some parents of children on the autism spectrum may wonder “does my child have an unknown talent?  Have I failed my child by not helping to identify such a talent?”  Or maybe “wouldn’t it be cool for my child to have a savant talent?”

My impression is that people with savant talents have ample opportunity, just as any other children, to identify subjects they enjoy. I don’t think parents of children on the spectrum have to put advanced-for-age books in front of their kids, followed by complex mathematical questions, then maps, then musical instruments, and so on.  Let kids be kids.  When an autistic individual has a special talent, with the focused personality that is so typical of autistic individuals, everyone will soon know that this talent exists.

Some parents may be motivated to hunt for savant abilities in their autistic children for the novelty of such abilities. My strong opinion is that this approach is more about the parents’ interests than the child’s.  It leads to situations in which the autistic child is brought before an audience of family or friends to demonstrate his or her talent.  This robs this child of his or her dignity; children are not dancing ponies.

On the other hand, there may be real benefits to fostering special skills.  Learning to play music, for example, has benefits toward social integration and personal growth for many people with autism. Furthermore, some savant talents, especially artistic ones, can develop over time from being descriptive or repetitious to becoming truly creative.

Another author’s view about fostering special talents is that training them becomes “a conduit toward normalization, using the unique savant skills to achieve better socialization, language acquisition, and independence.”  The special skills can be used to engage the attention of the individual with autism with the goal of channelling these skills more usefully.

Savant syndrome remains intriguing and incompletely understood.  It also creates interesting, complex questions for parents of children on the autism spectrum.  Once again, I invite you to share your comments and experiences.

References:

Bouvet L, Donnadieu S, Valdois S, et al. Veridical mapping in savant abilities, absolute pitch, and synesthesia: an autism case study. Front. Psychol. 2014 Feb;5(106):1-10.

Happe F and Frith U. The beautiful otherness of the autistic mind. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B. 2009;364:1345-1350.

Howlin P, Goode S, Hutton J, et al. Savant skills in autism: psychometric approaches and parental reports. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B. 2009;364:1359-1367.

Salovitta T, Ruusila L, Ruusila U. Incidence of savant syndrome in Finland. Percept Mot Skills. 2000 Aug;91(1):120-122.

Treffert DA. The savant syndrome: an extraordinary condition.  A synopsis: past, present, future.  Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B. 2009;364:1351-1357.

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