A Brief Autistic Savant History
When most people hear the term autistic savant, they immediately think of the movie Rain Man, which starred Dustin Hoffman. Hoffman portrayed Raymond Babbitt, probably the world’s most famous autistic savant.
The phrase “autistic savant” was coined by Bernard Rimland a well-known researcher and advocate in the autism community. The original phrase “idiot savant” was first used by Langdon Down (from whom the condition Down’s syndrome gets its name) in 188.
Down, while serving as head of a London asylum, had encountered two individuals who possessed extraordinary memory and mathematical skills. Down noted that although both could perform amazing feats in these two areas, their basic cognitive skills (speaking, reading, and writing) were significantly impaired.
Years later researchers started to document other cases of individuals who possessed incredible skills and abilities that defied logic given their seeming “mental retardation” in other areas.
Symptoms of an Autistic Savant
Autistic savants have:
- exceptional skills not exhibited by most people in the population
- a diagnosis/characteristics of autism spectrum disorder (ASD)
- a phenomenal memory
- skills limited to a narrow range of abilities (math, music, art, mechanical, or spatial)
From the few autistic savants who have been studied, the skills they display have been nothing less than remarkable. Daniel Tammet has the ability to say the number pi to 22,500 decimal places (it takes 5 hours to recite all the numbers). He also taught himself to speak the Icelandic language (one of the most difficult in the world) in 7 days. Stephen Wiltshire is a well-known savant who is also an artist who has written three books. Tim Baley is a concert pianist who performs with other autistic individuals who possess amazing musical talents (but are not savants). Nadia, who was diagnosed with autism at a young age, at 3 was able to draw horses with great detail and beauty. Interestingly, she lost her ability once she began talking.
Diagnosis of Autism
Psychological researchers have discovered that fewer than 10% of the autism population are savants. They have also found that savant abilities occur in other developmental disabilities, however with less frequency. That means that among the world’s non-autistic population, fewer than 1% of people are autistic savants. Thus far fewer than 50 individuals have been recognized as having the traits or symptoms of a savant. Of those fifty half were autistic and the other half had other developmental disabilities.
All autistic savants possess the ability to memorize great volumes of information. Two autistic savant sisters known as “The Twins” when given any date during their lifetime can accurately provide the weather forecast for that day. However, they cannot perform simple mathematical computations. Raymond Babbitt memorized tons of sports trivia, completes complex mathematical computations in minutes, and recites baseball statistics rapidly and accurately. However, he cannot explain how or why he is able to do so. Their ability to memorize seems limitless. Some researchers are hoping that by studying the autistic savant brain, they can unlock the mysteries of dementia.
Over a hundred years ago Langdon Down noted that the autistic savant skills were limited to a narrow range of abilities. They are: art, music, mathematical computation, mechanical, and spatial skills. Those observations still hold true today. Darold Treffert, MD, of the Wisconsin Medical Society categorizes savant abilities into three categories: splinter skills savants (memorization of bits of trivia), talented savants (highly talented in one specific area) and prodigious savants (skills so exceptional they would be extraordinary if displayed by a non-disabled person). However to be characterized as an autistic savant the four basic criteria listed above must be present.
Based on these criteria it is apparent why the population of autistic savants is so very small. Those rare few who have been deemed autistic savants have shown the world the complexity and wonder of the human brain even when it is considered to be impaired.
Treffert, Darold M.D. The Autistic Savant, Wisconsin Medical Society.org 2011.
Edelson, Stephen M. Ph.D. Research:Autistic Savants: Autism Research Institute, autism.com