Special Gifts and Talents: Autistic Savants
Some individuals with autism possess extraordinary gifts and talents. These people with special talents are referred to as savants. An expert with the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society based in the U.K., Dr. Feldman, defined savant syndrome as “a rare, but extraordinary condition, in which persons with serious mental impairment have some ‘island of genius’ which stands in marked incongruous contrast to the overall handicap." (Happe and Frith Autism and Talent, 2009)
Savant syndrome occurs in less than 10% of all autistics. A study carried out by the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of 137 adult autistic persons determined that one-third of all males and 19% of females showed some outstanding ability. These savant skills usually occur in one of the following four areas: math, music, art, and memory. One expert on the panel said he believes that savantism is the result of autistic people, through their brain impairment or injury, having access to sensory information before it can be categorized or labeled by their experiences or prior knowledge. In short, their skills could be characterized as instinctual or natural. There is no training, practice, or skill-building involved.
Society is fascinated by autistic savants. Several past prominent scientists, composers, and artists are believed to have been undiagnosed autistics. Unfortunately the general public labors under the false impression that autistic individuals and special talents go hand in hand. They do not. Although many people with autism display extraordinary perception and attention skills when compared to the rest of the population, they are not considered savants.
Temple Grandin is one of the most well-known autistics. Grandin explains how she uses her unique talents to excel in her chosen field, cattle equipment design. She states that she can visualize photographic images of each stage of the construction process. She describes her thinking as associative instead of linear. Like most autistic persons, Grandin was born with this talent. Unlike many savants, she has been able to apply it practically for her own benefit.
However, there are other autistic individuals who also have special gifts or talents that have been developed, learned or nurtured.
Special Gifts and Talents: Non- Savant Autistics
Though all autistic individuals are not savants, there are instances of autistic people who have learned or developed a special skill or talent.
Autism, Art and Music
One young autistic man, Forrest Sargeant of Olympia, Washington is a photographer. His parents bought him a camera and were amazed at the beautiful, artistic images he captured without any assistance. He is nonverbal and considered severely autistic; his work has been featured in a prominent art gallery and he earns money from his photographs.
There are other cases of autistic children who take drawing, music, or painting lessons and easily master the skill. Many autistic individuals are very detail-oriented and possess strong memorization skills. They are able to use these abilities when engaging in a particular activity that is of high interest to them.
Talk to special education teachers of autistic children and they’ll tell you that many of their autistic students have a natural inclination for mathematics. Their skill is usually in calculation. One young boy mother says he converts the letters of the alphabet into numbers from 1 to 26. He can then speedily add the numbers when given a series of letters. She states he also enjoys multiplying and dividing large numbers as well. Some autistic individuals can mentally add, subtract, multiply or divide large numbers, but have difficulty with comprehending a simple story.
Some parents help their autistic children to strengthen these skills by enrolling them in special math classes, purchasing educational materials and games, or getting their school district to test the child for giftedness and providing the mandated resources.
Many parents report that their autistic children have incredible memories. Children as young as three have memorized all the U.S. states and capitals, complex directions to favorite places or their home, the names of different cars makes and models, and a host of other things.
Teachers, therapists, and caregivers exploit the natural talent of their students. They engage them in repetitive trials to teach skills that may not be of interest to them, and find that the children are able to achieve a level of understanding because they remember specific procedures or rules and begin to apply them.
It must be stated again that all autistic persons do not possess some special skill or talent. It is one of the unfortunate myths perpetuated by movies, television, and the mainstream media.
These autistic individuals and their special talents should be nurtured and encouraged as should any child with a unique gift.
“Autism and Talent”, Francesca Happe and Uta Frith, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, April 24, 2009
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