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Autism and "Splinter Skills": What Does Your Child with Autism Really Understand?

By February 12, 2011

When our son, Tom, was in third grade he was able to do an entire page of double-digit multiplication quite accurately.  He could read a grade level book.  And he could tell you a great deal about the animals he'd learned about by watching Animal Planet.

Unfortunately, while he could calculate, he had no idea how multiplication could be applied in the real world - even in the context of word problems.   While he could read, he couldn't give you the plot of a short story.  And while he could recite paragraphs of information about lizards, he couldn't actually tell you anything about lizards in his own words.

This type of apparent - but not quite real - understanding is quite common among children in general.  Ask a neurotypical child, for example, to explain the significance of the pledge of allegiance...  or to explain what makes a square a square.  You'll find that many young children can recite a memorized script or identify an object without really understanding what they're saying or looking at.

For children with autism, though, it can be particularly tough to separate skills from understanding.  That's because kids with autism are often extremely good at reading at a very young age - and so appear to have advanced understanding of ideas that they really don't grasp at all.  They may be extraordinarily good at rote memorization, and able to rattle off whole paragraphs memorized from books or videos - yet understand very little of what they've said.  And they may be very good at working with numbers without having a clue as to how numbers might relate to real-world situations.

To what degree are these "splinter skills" really useful?   How can parents work with kids on the autism spectrum to help them use and build on such skills?  Tell your story!

Learn more about autism and splinter skills:

February 12, 2011 at 6:20 pm
(1) pam says:

As a special ed. teacher who works with children with autism, I see exactly what you mean, but how it doesn’t work well in school. Yes, my students can often read – or, actually, decode – at grade level, and it makes them look so good, but come state testing time? All those questions about who, what, where, why. They don’t do well, and often just end up getting upset with ALL those questions.
I am hoping the government really gets it someday soon, and realizes that children with special needs are not necessarily getting left behind, they’re just moving at a different pace.

February 12, 2011 at 7:34 pm
(2) Sandy says:

Splinter skills is pretty much the same as a savant skill. This isn’t the child so much being at grade level or has to be academic related at all, but does extraordinary well in one thing that is unrelated to other aspects of a person’s life. Being able to read at grade level isn’t a splinter skill. Overall, the IQ’s of those with savant abilities are around 70, which shows the obsession over the savant ability can more often take over above all other abilities. You almost need to counteract excessive preoccupation in order to do well in other area’s of importance.

I actually like those Government tests, even though they weren’t really created for special ed children. I do believe those tests given to special ed kids are unfair to the overall school test scores. For those teachers who thinks my son is doing just fine and wont acknowledge the difficulties he has, those tests show those know-it-alls that for the long run, he doesn’t retain it or is able to do it without aide, and puts those teachers back into perspective. It also shows he’s below grade level no matter how much they try to sugar-coat it. I don’t have a child with autism who has splinter skills. He isn’t at grade level in academics any where, not even in phy-ed.

As for building on those splinter skills, it would depend on what any particular one was. Obviously if a person had extraordinary musical skills, they could in the end make a living with it. But if one cant function in other area’s, one wonders how a splinter skill other than in itself is useful. A lot of people with savant skills cant function on their own. An example would be Flo & Kay: Twin Savants.

February 12, 2011 at 10:19 pm
(3) Leila says:

My autistic son is in 1st grade and we starting doing a lot of reading comprehension exercises in his therapy. In the beginning we thought he didn’t understand what he’d just read, but it turned out he can understand quite a bit if he pays attention to it. Same with math problems. I think the “splinter skill” of hyperlexia can be used to his advantage because if the auditory processing is hard, he can understand the world better if he reads about it than if someone is just trying to explain things to him orally and without images.

February 12, 2011 at 11:36 pm
(4) autism says:

As I understand the terms, the distinction between a splinter skill and a savant skill is the degree of skill. That is – a child who can decode well above grade level may have a splinter skill, while a child who can memorize the encyclopedia would be a savant.


February 13, 2011 at 12:03 am
(5) Sandy says:

Just like autism spectrum disorders, savant skills come in a spectrum. The range of skills includes:

* Splinter skills – the most common type. Like an obsessive hobbyist, the person commits certain things to memory (for example, sports trivia).
* Talented skills – the individual has a more highly developed and specialised skill in relation to their intellectual ability. 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 100 prodigious savants in the world. These skills could include, for example, the ability to play an entire concerto on the piano after hearing it only once.

February 13, 2011 at 7:44 am
(6) autism says:

Sandy – I have never seen or heard of the scale you just offered. Where did you find it? Is there a citation I can refer to?


February 13, 2011 at 10:13 am
(7) Jennifer says:

In education, state standards dictate what must be taught. Going through the motions to get to “success” is not really successful, if you know what I mean.
I have a document by Preston Lewis. A few of the things he has written in “My Older Brother Daryl” are:

“He has learned to do lots of things!”
1. Upon command he can “touch” his nose, ……
But he can’t blow his nose.
2. He can do a 12 piece Big Bird puzzle….. But, he prefers music, but he was never taught how to use a radio.
3. He can fold primary paper in halves and even quarters.
But, he can’t fold his clothes.
4. He can string beads in alternating colors…..
But, he can’t lace his shoes.
5. He can sing his ABC’s and tell me names of all the letters.
But, he can’t tell the men’s room from the ladies’ room when we go to McDonalds.
6. He can put the cube in the box, under the box, beside the box and behind the box!
But, he can’t find the trash bin in McDonald’s and empty his trash into it.
7. He can sit in a circle with appropriate behavior and sing songs and play “Duck, Duck, Goose”.
But, nobody else in the neighborhood seems to want to do that.

I know we have to start somewhere. But teachers need to move/think outside of the box/state standards….and be allowed to do so.

February 13, 2011 at 10:33 am
(8) autism says:

Jennifer – the list you’ve given is very thought provoking… but to be fair, I have to say that there are many teachers and therapists (and parents!) who do focus more on real-world skills than on “therapist’s office” skills like stringing beads.

One issue I’ve struggled with a lot though, is “for a child with autism, what ARE real world skills?”

For a preschooler, the real world does include circle time… but by the time a kid with autism masters circle time, it’s time to move on to “sit in a chair and raise your hand” skills. And by the time THAT’s mastered, it’s time for “transition to the cafeteria and manage your own social and meal time” skills.

This is one reason we took our son out of public school and have homeschooled for several years: we have the flexibility to actually incorporate community learning into his daily life, and we’re not required to teach skills that will become irrelevant next year!


February 13, 2011 at 6:44 pm
(9) Jennifer says:


I know there are MANY parents, in particular, that do focus on real-world learning, and some therapists and teachers do too.

Unfortunately, circle time etc. is considered “real world” for school-attending kids, even when it is not of any benefit for some of the kids. However, I understand what you mean when you say “what ARE real world skills?”. Circle time isn’t one of them in my book, nor is reciting the ABC’s or counting from 1 to 10 via memory.

I try my best to help students with skills that they need step-by-step guidance with. It all depends on the skills that they come to me with and the skills that I and their family believe will help them in life….and this also depends on the child’s level of ability.

It is so individualized, as you know. I start with where the student is, get input from family, and go from there. To be more specific, I’ve had students at such varying levels: for a non-verbal and aggressive child, I’ve found it important to teach them to use pictures to communicate (greatly cuts down on their frustration and aggression); for a child with social communication issues, I get them out and about. If he/she needs even a pencil at school, I take them to the supply room to ask for one (with prompting if needed). Plus, I focus on THEIR strengths because as I have worked with older students and transitioning them into adulthood, it is good for them to have a skill that they can manage and/or excel in. For example, a student with great computer skills…set them up with meaningful work, such as transferring VHS’s to DVD’s. Or a younger child with artistic skills…they can create wonderful stationary or art works for t-shirts, etc.

I don’t mean to imply that any of this is easy, believe me! I do believe though, that more thought needs to go into the educational “needs” of our special students; State Standards don’t fit the bill for all students.

February 13, 2011 at 6:39 pm
(10) C. S. Wyatt says:

The section on skills range:

What is the range of savant skills?
Savant skills exist over a spectrum of abilities. The most common savant abilities are called splinter skills. These include behaviors such as obsessive preoccupation with, and memorization of, music and sports trivia, license plate numbers, maps, historical facts, or obscure items such as vacuum cleaner motor sounds, for example.

Talented savants are those persons in whom musical, artistic, mathematical or other special skills are more prominent and highly honed, usually within an area of single expertise, and are very conspicuous when viewed against their overall handicap.

The term prodigious savant is reserved for those very rare persons in this already uncommon condition where the special skill or ability is so outstanding that it would be spectacular even if it were to occur in a non-handicapped person. There are probably fewer than 50 prodigious savants living worldwide at the present time who would meet this high threshold of special skill.

February 13, 2011 at 6:46 pm
(11) Lisa says:

CS and Sandy – where are these lists and definitions coming from? Please share your source with me!


February 13, 2011 at 7:06 pm
(12) C. S. Wyatt says:

No matter how many times I try to post the link to Dr. Treffert, Univ. of Wisconsin, the link just won’t appear. But that is the source. It is considered one “official” savant scale, similar to the various (and oddly not aligned) IQ scales.

February 13, 2011 at 8:44 pm
(13) Sandy says:

I’m no expert, or a guide but I do read alot and try not to add a bunch of stuff in the middle, but all it takes is doing a web search to find answers. A simple web search typing in splinter skills pops up savants. People have many idea’s of what things mean however it’d be nice to actually have a base line for everyone to go by than “as I understand the terms” when it’s clear it’s never been heard of. That is quite disappointing.

February 13, 2011 at 9:05 pm
(14) Lisa says:

Sandy, I have read about and written an article about savants. However the research on savants refers to individuals with extraordinary skills, not to individuals who are advanced readers or surprisingly good at chess or math.

Individuals who are unusually good at reading but have difficulties and challenges in other areas are not referred to as savants but as hyperlexic.

Individuals who are extraordinarily good at one thing but have deficits in most other areas are referred to as savants.

The scale you are describing does not appear in any of the government sites or research sites I’ve looked at. That’s why I asked you to cite a source. I had the impression you weren’t simply noting that “savant” pops up with “splinter skill” in a google search.

Fortunately, CS Wyatt has been able to point me to a particular reference at the University of Wisconsin which I had not read.

I agree that it would be nice to have a baseline for everyone to go by. It would also be nice to have standardized definitions for autistic disorders so that we didn’t have to cope with academic diagnoses and subjective tests.


February 13, 2011 at 9:58 pm
(15) Sandy says:

I am not sure what academic diagnosis has to do with this, or subjective tests. I believe of any child with autism, many can do well with subjective or objective testing while many will not and unless those tests are used, one would have no idea if the child was capable if they were all avoided. As much as many need accommodations for testing, the thing is preparing for the real world and the work place, where the expectations are not accommodations. If one wants to prepare a child for becoming an adult, they do have to be treated as same age peers some of the time. For many parents, that is what they want and a goal. I have no problem with subjective or objective tests. A splinter skill however over the baseline of academics probably wouldn’t carry through or be helpful for that child other than in the area of the splinter skill. If a child (and this doesn’t only pertain to those with autism, many people have savant abilities that don’t have autism) has an obsessive preoccupation with, and memorization of sports or music, often it wont transfer over to practicle academic use. Many with autism, but not all, have a restricted limited interests which may contribute to a splinter skill. My son can memorize whole cartoon movies and commercials and as amazing as that is, that will never transfer to his academics and I doubt it ever will. A good accommodation might be make his whole schooling in a commercial-form, he might retain it to repeat it however he never get’s the meaning of it. Repeating a whole movie really has no function at all other than maybe making a transcript for it.

February 13, 2011 at 10:40 pm
(16) Sandy says:

“For a preschooler, the real world does include circle time… but by the time a kid with autism masters circle time, it’s time to move on to “sit in a chair and raise your hand” skills. And by the time THAT’s mastered, it’s time for “transition to the cafeteria and manage your own social and meal time” skills.This is one reason we took our son out of public school and have homeschooled for several years: we have the flexibility to actually incorporate community learning into his daily life, and we’re not required to teach skills that will become irrelevant next year!”

What you described are developmental steps and stages of every child, and they are relevant at that age. I extremely disagree those skills for a child with autism are irrelevant the next year or that incorporating community learning would replace those developmental stages of circle time, sitting in a chair and raising your hand and many kids who cant manage their lunch time have aides. Those are real-world skills for those ages.
This is in fact what inclusion is all about. So are you saying Lisa that you at the time didn’t agree with inclusion?

February 14, 2011 at 6:45 am
(17) Lisa says:

Sandy, you have read and commented on almost every blog post I’ve ever written. Do you really, truly, think I am saying “inclusion is a bad thing?”

Come on, honestly!

If you don’t like the content of my blog posts or articles, you are under absolutely no obligation to read or comment on them.


February 14, 2011 at 10:38 am
(18) Sandy says:

Lisa, actually I think when it comes to any topic related to the public school system, I think you’re extremely biased and don’t realize how much of what you write about it comes across, such as what I quoted above. I didn’t say you thought inclusion was bad. I wouldn’t had asked if you didn’t agree with inclusion at that time but when you said it one reason you took your son out of public school appears you think those skills are not important to a child with autism or that at least public school wasn’t the place to obtain those skills. At one time I didn’t agree with inclusion, either however there’s a big difference of not agreeing with it than thinking it’s bad. If you don’t care to explain what you said, then maybe one day I’ll stop asking.

In pre school, they also sit in chairs at tables, taught to raise their hands and have snacks at those tables, and of course to share. These of course are area’s where splinter skills never help.

February 16, 2011 at 12:06 pm
(19) hera says:

I’m a great fan of inclusion, and also agree with Lisa that inordinate amounts of time spent learning skills that aren’t of long term help are unfortunately not uncommon in the school setting. Do disagree with Jennifer however. Counting one to ten and ABCs are the bottom line basics for both math and reading. In our society not being able to read at all is very challenging; what does the “stop” sign mean? “Danger”? Which is the ladies/gents bathroom? Being completely illiterate makes life much more difficult. And basic counting skills are needed if a child is ever going to buy something from a store.
Certainly, some children may never be able to develop enough usable abilities with either reading or math to be able to use them at all functionally, but the idea of a teacher considering the ability to read or to do basic math “non useful” is very worrying to me.
Can’t read, can’t count; there is a lot of very basic independence that goes away right there or at least becomes a lot more challenging.Even if you can’t speak at all being able to read at least a little does give another layer of independence.

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