Understanding the Autistic Savant: History and Theories Surrounding Savant Syndrome

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What is an Autistic Savant?

The autistic savant has become a sort of legend in recent years, becoming publicized by movies such as Rain Man. An autistic savant is one who is on the autistic spectrum but has extremely high-level skills in one or several areas. These areas usually are confined to musical, mathematic, artistic, or mechanical skills.

History of the Term

The term “autistic savant” replaced the original term “idiot savant,” which was introduced by Dr. J. Langdon Down in 1887. At this time, the word “idiot” meant a person with an extremely low IQ, and “savant” means “person who knows.” The term autism didn’t come about until 1943, when Dr. Leo Kanner described and named the condition “early infantile autism,” which is now called “autism.” In 1978, Dr. Bernard Rimland wrote an article in Psychology Today that introduced the term “autistic savant,” a much more appropriate term for this condition.

How Common Are Autistic Savants?

Interestingly, savants are more common among people with autism than most people believe. In fact, the estimated prevalence is 10%, although this includes a large spectrum of both those with “splinter skills” and those with skills so spectacular that a neurotypical person with those skills would be viewed as a genius. Interestingly, some savants have mental retardation or developmental disabilities other than autism, but about half of people with Savant syndrome are autistic.

Possible Causes

Any theory that explains the existence of savantism must address the following facts about the autistic savant: male savants outnumber female savants at a proportion of about 5:1 - there is a very narrow range of abilities that savants have (seem to be right-hemisphere related), and savant skills are accompanied by a very strong memory. None of the theories that have been suggested have been able to account for all of these factors.

Some theories that currently exist revolve around neurological changes that give some people with autism;

  • Strong concrete thinking skills
  • The ability to think abstractly
  • A photographic or rote memory
  • A sort of natural compensation for an autistic’s lack of intelligence in other areas

Some research is looking at genes that may cause savantism, but it is inconclusive at present.

One theory that does seem to be supported by a large body of evidence is that autistic savants have a damaged left hemisphere, which causes their right hemispheres to overcompensate. This would explain why the skills of an autistic savant tend to be those related to the right hemisphere, such as musical proficiency, mathematical precision, and the ability to memorize large sections of text easily. Imaging studies using CT, MRI, and PET scans have supported this theory, showing that autistic savants do tend to have damage in their left hemisphere regions, which may be due to prenatal, perinatal and postnatal causes.





This post is part of the series: Autism Research for Parents

Are you interested in the dynamics of how autism works? This series contains several articles that discuss what researchers have discovered or theorized about autism, especially those issues relevant to parents and caregivers.

  1. Vaccines and Autism: Are They Linked?
  2. Is There An Autism Crisis?
  3. What is the Executive Dysfunction Theory on Autism?
  4. Can Breech Births Cause Autism Spectrum Disorders?
  5. Brilliant Minds: What is an Autistic Savant?