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Savant syndrome and autism

Updated: Apr 12

by Peter Myers

Savant syndrome is the condition in which individuals with serious neurodevelopmental disabilities or other central nervous system disorders have some ‘islands of genius’ that stand in marked contrast to things they cannot do. Individuals with savant syndrome are often able to perform tasks better than ‘normal’ people.

Previously, savant syndrome has been classified either as congenital or acquired (Treffert 2009). In congenital savant syndrome, the extraordinary abilities emerge often in childhood and are superimposed on some underlying developmental disability. In acquired savant syndrome, extraordinary skills/ abilities follow some specific brain injury or other central nervous system disorder.

However, recently, 11 cases of a new form of extraordinary abilities, termed ‘the sudden savant syndrome’ have been reported – the condition, in which neurotypical persons have the sudden and unexpected emergence of savant skills without underlying disability (like in congenital savant syndrome) or brain injury (like in acquired savant syndrome), and without prior interest or ability in the newly emerged skill areas. (Treffert, Hunter,Ries 2021).

In sudden savant syndrome, extraordinary abilities appear abruptly at various ages, often later in life without any obvious cause. The new sudden skills come together “with a detailed, epiphany-type knowledge of the underlying rules of music, art, or math, for example – none of which the person had previously studied in detail. Sudden savants appear to know concepts without having previously learned them or suddenly gain a deeper understanding they had not had before.” Initially, it is accompanied by an obsessive interest with and compulsive overpowering need, for example, to draw, or to play music, or to do calculations. At the same time, sudden savants can also experience a fear that their newly acquired gift and compulsion are evidence of losing their mind, so there is a tendency to hide their newfound ability rather than display it (Treffert et al. 2021, p.73).

Areas of skills traditionally attributed to savants are:

  • musical ability (usually perfect pitch)

  • artistic ability (usually drawing, painting or sculpting)

  • pseudo-verbal ability: an exceptional ability to remember, spell and pronounce words with a very limited capacity to understand words

  • mathematical abilities (including lightning calculating, or the ability to compute prime numbers)

  • calendar calculating

  • geographical ability: reading maps, remembering directions, locating places

  • spatial skills: the ability to estimate the size or distance of objects with great accuracy

  • coordination, a remarkable ability to balance things

  • mechanical skills (taking apart and putting together complex mechanical and electrical equipment)

  • language ability (rare): polyglot savant

  • outstanding knowledge in specific fields (such as statistics, history, navigation).

Up to 37% of autistic individuals have some form of savant syndrome (Howlin et al. 2009).

However, due to the differences of their sensory perceptual and cognitive processes, the majority of autistic individuals have some extraordinary abilities that non-autistic people do not possess. The problem is, unlike ‘recognised savant skills’ (that are spectacular because ‘normal’ people can achieve them only with a lot of practice and hard work), other abilities that only autistic individuals possess are not recognised because the ‘normal’ population cannot even imagine that they exist.

Besides, while recognising different types of abilities in ‘diagnosed’ autistic savants we often ignore (or do not notice) the abilities that are not so spectacular (and visible) in individuals with so-called low-functioning autism

There are two necessary characteristics of the savant syndrome:

  1. A remarkable ability to memorize or to repeat an operation endlessly

  2. A means of given expression to this ability.

‘Unrecognized savants’ may lack the second characteristic while possessing the first. Some autistic savants are found undiagnosed among the general population or misdiagnosed among people with intellectual disabilities. Because their skills are not spectacular, they are often unidentified. Thus, autistic children with high intellectual ability may be placed in special education classes where all the attention is focused on remediation of their deficits while ignoring their exceptional abilities (‘invisible’ to their teachers).

These abilities may include:

  • extrasensory perception;

  • sensory (unusual discrimination abilities in smell, touch, vision, etc.);

  • perfect appreciation of passing time – without knowledge of or access to a clock;

  • sensing other people’s emotions through their own bodies (even if other people are far away);

  • others, we don’t know yet.

Interestingly, some report that autism and savant syndrome are linked by the presence of synaesthesia; for example, where such stimuli like sounds, letters or numbers trigger the perception of colours (Hughes et al. 2018). Hughes et al. found that synaesthesia is present at higher levels among autistic individuals with savant skills, but not in those without savant skills (Hughes et al. 2017).

Drawings by Peter Myers

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Sep 29, 2022

Savant syndrome is the condition in which individuals with serious neurodevelopmental disabilities or other central nervous system disorders have some ‘islands of genius’ that stand in marked contrast to things they cannot do.

I come from a family of HF ASD savants and every sibling set is 50% savants with moderate to profound giftedness and islands of genius too. The non asders are bright to moderately gifted neurotypicals. No one has deficiencies, although the ASDers fall into The Body Keeps The Score book as an autobiography. Our intellect is emotions driven. We can make it in the school systems but we learn to be invisible. The school mark answers wrong on us with frequently because we see everything deeper. I…

Oct 16, 2022
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You can join Lexington Serbin’s group ‘Autism-Doorway to Consciousness’ on FB. There are very interesting discussions there.

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