Autistic Savants

(formerly termed idiot savants)

Autistic Savant or Savant Syndrome, a Challenging Disorder

The autistic savant is a cognitive phenomenon in psychology. The term "autistic savant" refers to an individual with autism who has an extraordinary skill, or skills, not exhibited by most people.

Historically, an individual with an exceptional skill was called an "idiot savant", a French term meaning idiot, "unlearned" and savant, "a learned person, knowing, skilled". In a 1978 article in Psychology Today, Dr. Bernard Rimland introduced what is considered to be a more appropriate term; namely, "autistic savant", which is the current designation for this special condition.

  • Autism is a disorder that is characterised by developmental delays.
  • A person with autism often has problems understanding the meaning and purpose of body language and the spoken and written word.
  • About 10 per cent of people with autism show special or even remarkable skills; for example, a person with autism, who may be intellectually disabled in most ways, could have an exceptional memory for numbers.
  • Savant skills are occasionally found in people with other types of intellectual disability and in the non-disabled population, so most researchers use the term savant syndrome instead of autistic savant.
  • The most common forms of savant abilities involve mathematical calculations, memory feats, artistic abilities, and musical abilities.
  • One mathematical ability which many autistic individuals display is calendar memory.
  • They could be asked a question like: 'What day of the week was May 22, 1961? and they can determine the answer within seconds: "Monday".
  • Others can multiply and divide large numbers in their head and can also calculate square roots and prime numbers with little hesitation.
  • Other examples of some memory feats include: remembering everything about presidents (birth/death, term in office, names and birth dates of family members, cabinet members, etc.), memorizing the U.S. highway system, and remembering everyone's birth date, even after meeting the person once and not seeing him/her for ten or twenty years.
  • Some autistic individuals with savant abilities are incredible artists.
  • Music is another common savant ability. Many performers with autism have perfect pitch and also have a great memory for music. In some cases, a person can hear a classical piece once and play it back in its entirety.
  • The reason why some autistic individuals have savant abilities is not known. There are many theories, but there is no evidence to support any of them.
  • Apparently these individuals have incredible concentration abilities and can focus their complete attention to a specific area of interest.
  • Various Skills of Savant Abilities

  • Approximately ten per cent of people with autism show special or even remarkable skills.
  • Splinter skills are considered to be the most common type: The person, like an obsessive hobbyist, commits certain things to memory, such as sports trivia.
  • Talented skills describe people who has a more highly developed and specialised skill; for example, they may be artistic and paint beautiful pictures, or have a memory that allows them to work out difficult mathematical calculations mentally.
  • Prodigious skills are said to be the rarest type.

  • It is thought that there are only about 25 autistic savants in the world who show prodigious skills.
  • These skills could include, for example, the ability to play an entire concerto on the piano after hearing it just once.
  • Specialized skills: In all cases of savant syndrome, the skill is specific, limited, and usually reliant on memory.
  • Generally, savant skills include:

  • Musical, including the piano as the most popular instrument; for example, the skill may be the ability to play the piano without being taught.
  • Artistic talents; such as, the ability to draw, paint or sculpture with great skils.
  • Mathematics with the ability to work out complicated sums in their heads, or to determine calendar calculations by producing the day of the week for any given date.
  • Language when in rare cases, the person may be unusually gifted in languages.
  • Other skills; such as, knowing the time without seeing a clock, untaught mechanical skills, having an unfailing sense of direction, or the ability to commit maps to memory.

—Primarily compiled from information located in
"Overview of Autism" by Stephen M. Edelson, Ph.D.;
Center for the Study of Autism, Salem, Oregon.

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