The Savant Syndrome: Islands of Genius
Darold Treffert, MD
some, savant skills are remarkable simply in contrast to the handicap
(talented savants). In others, with a much rarer form of the condition,
the ability or brilliance is not only spectacular in contrast to the
handicap, but would be spectacular even if viewed in a normal person
are fewer than 100 reported cases of prodigious savants in the world
literature. The condition was first named Idiot Savant in 1887 by Dr.
J. Langdon Down (better known for having named Down's Syndrome).
chose that term because the word "idiot" at that time was an accepted
classification level of mental retardation (IQ below 25) and the word
"savant" meant knowledgeable person derived from the french word
savoir, meaning "to know".
term idiot savant has been largely discarded now, appropriately,
because of its colloquial, pejorative connotation and has been replaced
by Savant Syndrome.
Idiot Savant was a misnomer since almost all of the reported cases have
occurred in persons with IQs of 40 or above. The condition can be
congenital or acquired in an otherwise normal individual following CNS
injury or disease. It occurs in males more frequently than in females
in an approximate 6:1 ratio.
some instances unusual language abilities have been reported but those
are rare. Other skills much less frequently reported include map
memorizing, visual measurement, extrasensory perception, unusual
sensory discrimination such as enhanced sense of touch & smell, and
perfect appreciation passing time without knowledge of a clock face.
The most common savant skill is musical ability.
regularly re-occurring triad of musical genius, blindness and autism is
particularly striking in the world literature on this topic. Premature
birth history is commonly reported in persons with Savant Syndrome.
memory is a type of "unconscious reckoning"--habit or procedural
memory--which relies on more primitive circuitry (cortico-striatal)
than higher level (cortico-limbic) cognitive or associative memory used
more commonly and regularly in normal persons.
other developmental disabilities are much more common than autism,
however, the actual percent of persons with Savant Syndrome turns out
to be approximately half Autistic Disorder and half other Developmental
findings on cerebral lateralization, and some imaging and other studies
that do show left hemisphere damage in savants, suggest that the most
plausible explanation for Savant Syndrome to be left brain damage from
pre-natal, peri-natal or post-natal CNS damage with migratory, right
brain compensation, coupled with corresponding damage to higher level,
cognitive (cortico-limbic) memory circuitry with compensatory take over
of lower level, habit (cortical-striatal) memory.
accounts for the linking of predominately right brain skills with habit
memory so characteristic of Savant Syndrome (Treffert, 1989). In
talented savants, concreteness and impaired ability to think abstractly
are locked in a very narrow band but, nevertheless, with constant
practice and repetition can produce sufficient coding so that access to
some non-cognitive structure or unconscious algorithms can be
prodigious savants, some genetic factors any be operative as well,
since practice alone cannot account for the access to vast rules of
music, art or mathematics that seems innate in these persons.
established, intense concentration, practice, compensatory drives and
reinforcement by family, teachers and others play a major role in
developing and polishing the savant skills and memory linked so
characteristically and dramatically by this unique brain dysfunction.
the left brain completes its development later than the right brain, it
is at risk for CNS damage for a longer period of time to
circulating-testosterone (which can be neurotoxic) in male fetuses and
that left CNS damage, with right brain compensation, may account for
the high male:female ratio not only in Savant Syndrome, but in autism,
stuttering, hyperactivity and learning disabilities as well.
one sees in Rain Man are savant skills (lightening calculating,
memorization etc.) grafted on to autism (narrowed affect, obsessive
sameness, rituals etc).
also important to point out that the savant in the movie is a high
functioning person with autistic disorder, but the disorder consists of
an entire spectrum of disabilities ranging from profoundly disturbed to
high functioning; not all autistic savants function at such a high
has not turned out to be the case. Quite to the contrary, "training the
talent" is a valuable approach toward increasing socialization,
language and independence.
the special skills of the savant, rather than being seen a odd,
frivolous, trivial or distracting, become a useful treatment tool as a
conduit toward normalization in these special persons.
schools have begun to include persons with Savant Syndrome into classes
for the gifted and talented as a method of enhancing further this
conduit toward normalization.
prodigious savants more recently described are in England, Austrailia
and Japan. A 1983 60 minutes program on Savant Syndrome was
particularly useful in bringing this remarkable condition to more
general attention and of course the move Rain Man catapulted the
condition to national prominence.
have been a number of other television specials and several movies
about Savant Syndrome over the past 10 years. My book Extraordinary
People: Understanding Savant Syndrome reviews the condition in
~ ~ ~
the Savant Syndrome site for more information and articles
here with kind permission of the author.
Book by Darold A. Treffert, M.D.
Extraordinary People: Understanding Savant Syndrome
~ ~ ~
Related pages :
~ ~ ~