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What Is an Autistic Savant?

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Updated April 16, 2014

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Question: What Is an Autistic Savant?
What is an autistic savant, and could my child be one?
Answer: Anyone who has seen the movie Rain Man has heard the expression “autistic savant” (or perhaps the outdated term “idiot savant”). A savant is a person with extraordinary mental abilities, and an autistic savant is typically someone with autistic symptoms who also has a single outstanding area of knowledge or ability.

Often, savant abilities are linked to extraordinary abilities in the areas of math, music and memory. Famous savants like Kim Peek, the model on which the character of Rain Man was created, can almost instantly calculate dates for any event hundreds of years into the past or the future. Other savants, like teen musician Matt Savage, can perform impressive feats in specific fields while finding it nearly impossible to take part in ordinary social activities. As it happens, Peek was not autistic, while Savage is.

According to Darold A. Treffert, MD of the University of Wisconsin Medical School, Madison,

    “Savant syndrome is a rare, but extraordinary, condition in which persons with serious mental disabilities, including autistic disorder, have some 'island of genius' which stands in marked, incongruous contrast to overall handicap. As many as one in 10 persons with autistic disorder have such remarkable abilities in varying degrees, although savant syndrome occurs in other developmental disabilities or in other types of central nervous system injury or disease as well. Whatever the particular savant skill, it is always linked to massive memory.”
It’s important to note that “savants” and “talented autistic people” are not the same thing. Savant syndrome is rare and extreme: a person with autism who is able to calculate well, play an instrument, or otherwise present himself as highly capable is not by definition a savant. Thus, a talented and intelligent individual with autism, such as Temple Grandin, cannot termed a savant.

This distinction can be difficult for parents and the public in general to understand. It’s fairly common for parents of a child with autism to be told how lucky they are that their child is autistic, since autism implies great intelligence and ability. The reality, however, is that few people with autism are savants, though many are very intelligent. It is perfectly possible to be a bright, capable, talented individual with autism who is neither a genius nor a savant.

Sources:

C Hou et al. "Autistic savants." Neuropsychiatry Neuropsychol Behav Neurol. 2000 Jan;13(1):29-38.

D.A. Treffert. "The savant syndrome: an extraordinary condition. A synopsis: past, present, future." Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2009 May 27;364(1522):1351-7.

D.A. Treffert. :The savant syndrome and autistic disorder." CNS Spectr. 1999 Dec;4(12):57-60.

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