|Savant Syndrome -Rote Memory - Bright Tots - Information on child development - Autism information. www.brighttots.com
Savant syndrome is a unique, but phenomenal, condition in which persons with significant mental disabilities, including autism
spectrum disorder, have an ability of genius. These gifted children, despite their often severely incapacitating disabilities in
communication, social and on occasions, intellectual development, often display extraordinary gifts or splinter skills in one or
Savant gifts, or splinter skills, may be displayed in the following skill areas or domains: astounding memory; hyperlexia (e.g. the
exceptional ability to read, spell and write); art; music; mechanical or spatial skill; calendar calculation; mathematical calculation;
sensory sensitivity; athletic performance; and computer ability. These skills may be amazing in comparison to the disability of
As many as 1 in 10 persons with autism spectrum disorder have such impressive abilities in varying extent, although savant
syndrome occurs in other developmental disabilities or in other types of central nervous system injury or disease as well. A new
study of about 100 adults with autism shows that one third have skills that stand out, both in comparison with their other abilities
and with the skills of the general population. Savant skills are occasionally found in people with other types of intellectual
disability and in the non-disabled population, so most researchers use the term 'savant syndrome' instead of autistic savant.
'Autistic savant' means a person with autism who has a special skill. 'Savant' comes from the French word for 'knowing' and
means 'a learned person'. A person with this condition was once known as an 'idiot savant', since 'idiot' was an acceptable word
for mental retardation in the late 19th century, when the phenomenon was first medically investigated. Around 10 percent of
people with autism show special or even remarkable skills. For example, a person with autism, who may be intellectually disabled
in most ways, could have an exceptional memory for numbers.
Savant Rote Memory
It has been suggested frequently that savants show exceptional rote memory. Rote memory is learning or memorization by
repetition, often without an understanding of the reasoning or relationships involved in the material that is learned. However, rote
memory alone clearly does not explain savant talents within the classical domains of music, art, and calendar calculation, where
greater flexibility in the mastery of domain specific information is essential and in fact apparent in savants.
Implicit memory is a type of memory that is expressed through performance, rather than recognizable familiarity, such as
information acquired during skill learning, routine development, classical training, emotional learning, and practice. Therefore, it
could be that an inborn obsession with structure and predictability, as would be the case for most, if not all, individuals with
ASD, plays a major role in skill expression, or it could be due to overexposure to the material in question, which leads to the
development of awareness and knowledge of its components. Perhaps even more likely, it could be a combination of these
factors working in a range of levels depending on the individual in question but placing importance on skill development. It’s
been proposed that over learning, at least in the case of calendar calculation, may result in implicit learning of calendar structure,
facilitating the development of such skill.
Other biological means also may play an important role in savant-skill development. Certainly, there is some evidence that savant
skills have genetic influence. It seems that individuals with similar skills to savants (e.g., musicians and artists) also display some
of the unique cognitive characteristics of these individuals. To date, hereditary patterns of savant skills have not been assessed
fully through family studies, although there is a limited literature on the inheritable possibility of savant-related skills.
Of course, environmental factors (e.g., socioeconomic factors and exposure to material within savant domains through
education and training) need to be considered and may also prove informative. Taking it a step further, it may be that relatives of
individuals with ASD (with or without savant skills) exhibit more skills within savant domains partly because of their
predisposition to demonstrate subclinical ASD traits that are associated with savant domain skills among non-ASD gifted
individuals. However, the biological methods underlying savant skill expression, particularly in ASD, remain largely unknown and
open for future investigation.
Autistic Savant Skills
The skills in the autistic savant continue to be seen within a fascinating but remarkable constant range of human abilities: music,
usually piano and almost always with perfect pitch; art, typically drawing, painting or sculpting; lightning calculating, calendar
calculating or other facility with numbers such as computing prime numbers; and mechanical abilities or spatial skills. Unusual
language talent — polyglot savant — skills have been reported but are very rare. Other less frequently reported special skills
include map memorizing, remarkable sense of direction, unusual sensory discrimination such as enhanced sense of smell or
touch, and prefect appreciation of passing time without knowledge of a clock face. A noticeably unpredictable number of
musical savants through this past century, and at the present time, are blind and autistic, demonstrating a curiously recurrent
triangle of blindness, autism and musical genius.
Around 10 percent of people with autism show special or even remarkable skills. The skills range includes:
• Splinter skills - the most common type. The person, like an obsessive collector, places certain things to memory, such
as sports trivia.
• Talented skills - the person has a more highly developed and specialized skill. For example, they may be artistic and paint
beautiful pictures, or have a memory that allows them to work out difficult mathematical calculations in their head.
• Prodigious skills - the rarest type. It is thought that there are only about 25 autistic savants in the world who show
prodigious skills. These skills could include, for example, the ability to play an entire composition on the piano after hearing it
In all cases of savant syndrome, the skill is specific, limited and most often dependent on memory. Generally, savant skills
• Music - the piano is the most popular instrument. For example, the skill may be the ability to play the piano without being
• Art - such as the ability to draw, paint or sculpt to high standards. For example, Richard Wawro is an autistic savant who
is also blind, but his crayon drawings command up to $10,000 each.
• Mathematics - for example, the ability to work out complicated sums in their head, or to calendar calculate (for example,
work out what day it was on June 1, 1732).
• Language - in rare cases, the person may be unusually gifted in languages.
• Other skills - such as knowing the time without seeing a clock, untaught mechanical skills, having an unfailing sense of
direction or the ability to place maps to memory.
The Brain's Right Hemisphere
Autistic savant behavior is so far unexplained. However, researchers think it might have something to do with the right
hemisphere of the brain.
The brain is divided into two hemispheres, left and right, bridged by a thick band of nerve fibers called the corpus callosum.
While left hemisphere skills are involved with symbolism and interpretation (such as understanding words and body language),
the skills of the right hemisphere are much more concrete and direct (such as memory).
CT and MRI scans of the brains of autistic savants suggest that the right hemisphere is compensating for damage in the left
hemisphere. It seems that the right hemisphere of an autistic savant focuses its attention on one of the five senses - for example,
if it concentrates on hearing, then the autistic savant may have a special skill in music. Research is ongoing.
Savant Skills Reinforced
It is thought that habitual memory centers of the brain take over from higher memory centers, which helps to explain why some
autistic savants are like obsessive hobbyists who do the same thing over and over.
Apart from habitual memory, other factors that may help an autistic savant to sharpen their special skill could include:
• The ability to focus and concentrate
• The desire to practice endlessly
• Positive reinforcement by family, friends and caregivers.
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