Savants are people who despite serious mental or physical disability have quite remarkable, and sometimes spectacular, talents. This is an exceedingly rare phenomena of which there are several well documented cases. Recently the Academy Award winning movie Rain Man has led to the term savant being much more widely known. Savant syndrome is perhaps one of the most fascinating phenomena in the study of human differences and cognitive psychology.
Another term, autistic savant, is also widely used, but this can be somewhat misleading. Although there is a strong association with autism, it is certainly not the case that all savants are autistic or all autistic persons are savants. It is estimated that about 50% of the cases of savant syndrome are from the autistic population, and the other 50% from the population of developmental disabilities and CNS(Central Nervous System) injuries. The estimated incidence of savant abilities in the autistic population is about 10%, whereas the incidence in the learning disability population (which is very much larger) is probably less than 1%.
Savant skills are usually found in one or more of five major areas: art, musical abilities, calendar calculation, mathematics and spatial skills. The most common kind of autistic savants are the calendrical savants, who can calculate the day of the week with speed and usually with accuracy. Memory feats are the second most common savant skill.
Most savants are born with their abilities (and unfortunately, their developmental disorders), but not all: severe brain injuries can, in very rare instances, cause savant-like abilities to surface.
Some Notable Savants:
1. Kim Peek
Kim Peek was the inspiration for the character played by Dustin Hoffman in the movie, Rain Man.
He was born with severe brain damage. His childhood doctor told Kim's father to put him in an institution and forget about the boy. Kim's severe developmental disabilities, according to the doctor, would not let him walk let alone learn. Kim's father disregarded the doctor's advice.
Till this day, Kim struggles with ordinary motor skills and has difficulty walking. He is severely disabled, cannot button his shirt and tests well below average on a general IQ test.
But what Kim can do is astounding: he has read some 12,000 books and remembers everything about them. "Kimputer," as he is lovingly known to many, reads two pages at once - his left eye reads the left page, and his right eye reads the right page. It takes him about 3 seconds to read through two pages - and he remember everything on 'em. Kim can recall facts and trivia from 15 subject areas from history to geography to sports. Tell him a date, and Kim can tell you what day of the week it is. He also remembers every music he has ever heard.
2. Alonzo Clemons
As a toddler, Alonzo suffered a head injury in an accident that changed his life. He can't feed himself or tie his shoelaces, but he can sculpt.
And boy, can he sculpt: after seeing only a fleeting image of an animal on a TV screen, Alonzo could sculpt a perfect 3D figure of it, correct in each and every detail right down to the muscle fibers.
3. Ellen Boudreaux
Ellen Boudreaux is a blind autistic savant with exceptional musical abilities. She can play music perfectly after hearing it just once, and has a such a huge repertoire of songs in her head that a newspaper reporter once tried to "stump Ellen" by requesting that she played some obscure songs - and failed. Ellen knew them all.
Ellen has two other savant skills that are unusual. First, despite her blindness, she is able to walk around without ever running into things. As she walks, Ellen makes little chirping sounds that seems to act like a human sonar.
Second, Ellen has an extremely precise digital clock ticking in her mind. She knows the exact hour and minute, any time of the day without ever having seen a clock nor have the concept of the passing of time explained to her.