A high-functioning autistic savant is an individual who has autism along with prodigious abilities or talents. Named after the French doctor Étienne Eugène Azam , these savants are usually diagnosed early in life due to their unusual skills and may even be self-diagnosed (so as to explain why they do not follow the same routines of others).
Étienne Azam first developed the term “idiot savant” in 1887. It is now more commonly called autistic savant, because one of its key diagnostic features is autism. The incidence of high-functioning autistic savants has been estimated at less than ten individuals per million.
An important study done by Lorna Wing in 1991 helped to clarify the role of autistic traits in prodigies. The savant is often very gifted in at least one area related to human skills, such as art, memory or mathematical calculation. This area of genius is sometimes called splinter skills .
Savant syndrome has also been documented with damage to the left anterior temporal lobe. This form of savant syndrome was reclassified as a “hyper-functioning” form of autism spectrum disorder by scientists studying the brains of individuals with savant syndrome. Neurological imaging has shown that this class of savants use different parts of their brain than non-savant, normal intelligence people do when completing the same tasks.
Artistic abilities are especially common with autistic savants. A possible explanation of this fact was provided by Temple Grandin, who wrote that non-autistic people use both sides of their brain when they look at something. Autistic individuals who “see” in this manner also tend to be more robust than non-autistic savants.
Of the eight cases of autistic savant art featured in New York Times writer Darold Treffert’s book ” Islands of Genius “, seven involved artistic depictions of animal motion, including two involving horses running at full gallop. For example, one autistic artist created colorful pictures based on memories he had as a very young child of watching the Walt Disney animated film Dumbo .
Music may be an area of savant strength for autistic savants, though not all are musically inclined. Some have remarkable tone deafness , while others will play the piano but only pre-determined music that they learned to play by ear without knowing how it should sound or how to read music . This has been described as “playing by ear” and may reflect relative left-hemisphere dysfunction.
Memorization of monumental proportions is possible for the savant , such as those who can calculate large prime numbers or remember Pi to thousands of digits after a single exposure. Remarkably, some savants have developed very accurate memory techniques, which include the method of loci , to give savant calculators the ability to perform complex calculations.
The spirit of an autistic savant has been captured by Kim Peek ‘s father in his book “Look Into My Eyes”. The book describes Kim’s amazing abilities along with his disabilities and it accentuates Kim’s spirit in the face of his disability. A brief summary (from the back cover):
“To most people, nine is an ordinary number, but to Kim it was always magical. He could instantly tell you what day of the week any date in history fell on; he knew precisely how many days were in between each date; and he could calculate in seconds the number of days in any month or year. Kim could quote the contents of almost any book ever published verbatim, including many telephone directories and dictionaries. By eleven he had read thousands of books on every conceivable subject…
“Kim is an autistic savant . He has a severe developmental disability where all learning processes are disrupted. Yet he can read two pages at once, one with each eye; turn over ten pages of a book simultaneously and remember almost everything he reads or hears. Kim is a living example of the unlimited potential that exists in all our brains – an amazing spirit who has triumphed over great odds to become a cultural phenomenon…
“Look Into My Eyes” brings this incredible story together, with the love and insight of Kim’s father, who has spent over forty years understanding his unique child.
“Kim Peek is an autistic savant. His father wrote a book about him. It was published in 2012.
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