Autistic Savants More Common Than We Thought
> 4/22/2009 7:21:39 PM

Was da Vinci autistic? Van Gogh? Aristotle? We’ll never know for sure – and it matters little to the world today. But a recent research project confirms that autistic savants, or ASD individuals who boast a near-inhuman degree of brilliance in one or more niche areas like memory recall, spatial composition and mathematical problem solving are fairly common. Their skills are exceptional in relation to both their other abilities and those of the general public. The idea that neurological abnormalities can facilitate masterpieces is not a new one – but it is based at least partly in fact. This savant personality type, most famously depicted in the “Rain Man” role that earned an Oscar for Dustin Hoffman, is much more than a cliché. While previous consensus held that approximately 10% of autistic individuals had savant-like skills, the number may be closer to 1 in 3.

These extraordinary skills are difficult to measure on any objective level, but British researchers went further than any of their predecessors in attempting to do just that. A group based at the Institute of Psychiatry at King's College in London solicited testimony from the parents of autistic children who believed that their kids possessed such gifts. And they used a variety of standards to determine how many of the claims were legitimate. Some of the skills, used as benchmarks in this study, that have been repeatedly observed among savants: the ability to quickly name the day of the week for any given date in the past or future; the possession of perfect musical pitch; the uncanny ability to name a complex or obscure composition based on a single chord. Researchers also used intelligence tests designed to measure an individual’s specific skills in the mathematical, spatial and memory-related fields in order to identify those with exceptional gifts.

The study’s subjects were all adults who had been observed in a clinical setting from time to time since their initial diagnoses years earlier. Almost half of the responding parents believed their children to possess savant qualities. The researchers’ findings held that, while the parents of these subjects were perhaps a little overeager in labeling them geniuses, a significant number (approximately 28.5%) did indeed have either an abnormal niche skill or exceptional cognitive abilities in one specific area. Our perspective on this phenomenon is changing. Not only is it more common than scientific consensus held it to be; we have begun to understand its mechanisms more intimately than before, and with this knowledge come new theories about the neurological and behavioral roots of the savant.

One longstanding theory regarding savants is that the energies most people use to empathize and communicate with others are so severely underdeveloped in autistic individuals that their otherwise normal brainpower is devoted to an abnormal degree to other non-social skills such as math, problem solving, music theory, etc.  Another theory that appears to be gaining credibility in the face of studies like this one is that autistic individuals are drawn to the sort of restrictive, repetitive, socially isolated behaviors that breed mastery of a given skill. For example, many autistic individuals are obsessed with detail and have a great gift for noting miniscule differences in repeating patterns. Their brains are more oriented toward noting these patterns, memorizing them and theorizing about their variations than explaining them to others. They're far more attentive to minute details than to the shape of the greater "big picture." This sort of behavior would naturally lead someone to enjoy spending countless hours performing complicated math problems, practicing a musical instrument or applying scientific theories to collected data sets. Other, more socially oriented individuals would presumably find such pursuits far less appealing.

Does this mean that autistic individuals are inherently predisposed toward these talents or the personal discipline necessary to refine them? The question oversimplifies the issue. We do have good reason to believe that the repetitive tics and obsession with statistical data that are so common to autistic individuals may in some cases facilitate the development of a very unique and abnormally well-developed skill set. The most important conclusion to be drawn is that the skills of savants are not miracles or freak occurrences but the hard-earned real-world gifts of those who have them. And they should be celebrated and encouraged, not ridiculed.

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