Savant Syndrome
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 several domains.

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 autism.

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 Learning

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.

Genetic Findings

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 only once.

Specialized Skill

In all cases of savant syndrome, the skill is specific, limited and most often dependent on memory.
Generally, savant skills include:
•        
Music - the piano is the most popular instrument. For example, the skill may be the ability to play the
piano without being taught.
•        
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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