Basics
July 17, 2020

Pranav Harish

Extraordinary Gift of Autism: Savant Skills

Autistic Savants are people who have an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and display profound skills in one or several areas.

A fascinating fact about autistic savants is, despite their disabilities caused by autism, they have extraordinary super-human skills that are far beyond an abled person's capability.

This contrast in gifted autism shows a disparity between their remarkable skills in a particular area and their general level of functioning.

What are Savant Skills?

Autistic Savants have shown the ability to -

  1. Expertly play musical instruments such as a piano and replay complex music compositions with perfect pitch after a single exposure
  2. Perform lightening fast mathematical calculations and arithmetic problems
  3. Perform calendrical calculations within seconds
  4. Able to draw complex visuals with high accuracy after a single/brief viewing.
  5. Exceptional memory for dates, places, map routes, and facts
  6. Advanced language learning skills
  7. Memorize books by just glancing at the pages and can recall every word
  8. Mechanical skills such as the ability to measure distances precisely without the aid of instruments
  9. Hyperlexia - Extraordinary ability to read, spell, and write

Generally, a single "special" skill exists in an autistic savant, but in some cases, several special abilities exist simultaneously.

The perfect example would be that of Kim Peek, an autistic savant. He was known as a "megasavant" as he could read two pages of a book at once. His left eye reads the left page, and the right eye reads the right page in under three seconds. He would remember every word. He was able to absorb maps and travel guides, and use his exceptional calculating abilities to provide driving directions between any two cities in the world within seconds.

Why are savant skills associated with autism?

The exact causes of savant skills in autism is unclear.

It is wrong to assume that all savants are autistic. However, they are more likely to share symptoms common to ASD. Autistic savants do suffer from developmental delays, communication, and social problems that are associated with ASD.

Studies have shown that autism and savantism share a common genetic root. Families who are more likely to have autistic children have a higher chance of producing savants.

Nearly 10% of people with ASD are savants that make only about 1% of the world population.

Interestingly, there is no relation between IQ and being a savant. Low IQ autistic individuals are known to have savant skills, whereas some high IQ autistic individuals need not have savant skills.

In the brain of an autistic savant

The left hemisphere of the brain is responsible for functions associated with logic, reasoning, and verbal communication. Whereas, the right hemisphere of the brain is responsible for artistic expression, visual construction, and creative thinking.

Studies have shown that some autistic individuals have a loss of function in the left hemisphere of the brain. This leads to heightened activity in the right hemisphere of the brain that invokes these dormant skills.

So, a defect or dysfunction in the left hemisphere will suppress its functions. As a result, it will lead to a compensatory improvement in the right hemisphere brain functions that appear to evolve. (1)

Research has shown that the formation of outstanding neural structures during brain development has resulted in savant skills. People with autism have shown enhanced activity in brain regions associated with object recognition, visual processing, and acute vision. (2)

For example, when someone loses one of the senses, such as eyesight, the brain compensates with exceptional hearing ability.

Something similar happens in autism, wherein the brain reorganizes itself and is much more adaptable. It leads to enhanced perception, that when combined with hyperfocus and obsession, result in savant skills.

Unfortunately, the extraordinary abilities of autistic savants do not help them in social interaction, communication, or employment. The challenge is to figure out how to assist them in developing their skills to enhance opportunities.

References:

(1) Patricia Howlin, Sussan Goode, Jane Hutton, and Michael Rutter. Savant skills in autism: psychometric approaches and parental reports. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2009;364(1522): 1359-1367.

(2) Darold A. Treffert. The savant syndrome: an extraordinary condition. A synopsis: past, present, future. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2009;364(1522): 1351-1357.

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