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Savant Syndrome (formerly called "Idiot Savant")

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.

Comments (22)

Socrates, great blog and very informative! Thank you for the info.handshake
on the same idea of what your talking about,,,,ive known a guy for 40 years now.....there aint nothing you can put in fronyt of him,,be it from the past or right up to todays technology,,,computers,,cars ,,electronics,,etc,,,nothing he cant fix!!!!!!!!!,,,,but when it comes to deciding where to put something in his house so it will look nice,,,,it never ends ,,he cant decide,,,,and the simplest things he has trouble coping with,,,,,,not savant,,,but damn close to it,,, id say,,,,,,,
I am glad you found it informative.
Hi Socrates wave

When I was 17, while waiting for my 'O'-Levels results, I did some voluntary jobs in a local run church that had a separate building to house autistic and Down Syndrome's kids. They had also kids with severe disabilities and kids with cerebral palsy too. There was this 6 year-old girl who would helped me every morning to set the breakfast table. It was not an easy feat given to the fact she's very young and an autistic child. I had never heard her uttered a single word the whole 5 months I was there but she would give me a hug at the neck ( I had to be on my knees in order for her to do that coz she was so tiny! Lol) and a shy peck on my cheek when she sees me every morning!
What amazes me was she could remember all her friend's, there were like 40 of them, mugs and their preferences in beverages and cookies! It was very heart wrenching when I was leaving.... She wouldn't let go of my dress for almost an hour until the pastor's wife came and gently carried her away. From that day onwards, I vowed never to get too close to any of them should I do anymore voluntary jobs in the future.

Fast forward to many many years later. When I was in Macau, a good friend of mine had a centre for autistic kids. Naturally, I went to help out, not daily, only thrice or twice a week. There was this boy, around 10 years-old, who likes to sketch all the time. One day, while I was playing with another girl, he came from behind and placed both his hands on my face! I was caught off guard and stayed very very still. He touched my face, all over, stopping at my nose and my lips... The following day, my friend, Eliana, gave me a sketch of ME!!!! I cried upon seeing it... It was so beautifully drawn and I had it framed immediately!
I love your blogs, so much to learn from them , thank you .
I love your blogs, so much to learn from them , thank you .
I disagree handshake
I loved your blog so much, very informative. I watched the movie Rain man a few times and just loved it. Thank you!!!
MY dad does crossword puzzles in languages he doesn't speak.
The term idiot savant (French for "learned idiot" or "knowledgeable idiot") was first used to describe the condition in 1887 by John Langdon Down, who is known for his description of Down syndrome. The term "idiot savant" was later described as a misnomer because not all reported cases fit the definition of idiot, originally used for a person with a very severe intellectual disability. The term autistic savant was also used as a diagnosis for this disorder. Like idiot savant, the term autistic savant also became looked at as a misnomer because only one-half of those who were diagnosed at the time with savant syndrome were autistic. Upon realization of the need for accuracy of diagnosis and dignity towards the individual, the term savant syndrome became widely accepted terminology.
- Wikipedia
As you said, the guy you mentioned possesses exceptional skill in fixing technological items such as computers, cars, etc. but seems to have trouble in making decisions with aesthetic matters such as interior decoration of his own house. I suppose he has no traits of autistic behaviour otherwise.
Perhaps there are several "normal" persons like that who perform exceptionally well in some areas and poorly in others.
I was very moved by the two cases of your interaction with autistic children that you described, and how heart wrenching the first experience must have been for you. I think that because of their "odd" behaviour and mannerisms, some persons may be inclined to think that such autistic children not be very sensitive when it comes to experiencing human emotions but perhaps they can feel things more deeply than most of us.

I am also amazed at how a young ten year old boy could capture the details of your face simply by feeling it with his hands and then reproducing those details in his drawing sketch.

You must have some special quality to evoke such responses in those children and I commend you for that.
Thanks for your comment.
Personally, I would like to see more blogs of this type posted by others at CS.
I respect your right to disagree but thanks for the handshake anyway.
Thank you for your kind comment. I am glad you found the blog informative.
Your dad has an amazing ability. Please tell us more about it.
I also love to do crossword puzzles but only in English.
Some more notable savants

4. Gottfried Mind: Cat's Raphael
Gottfried Mind was one of the earliest savants in history. In 1776, the eight-year-old Gottfried was placed in an art academy, where his teachers noted that he was "very weak, incapable of hard work, full of talent for drawing, a strange creature, full of artist-caprices, along with a certain roguishness."
One day, Gottfried's mentor, a painter named Sigmund Hendenberger, was drawing a cat when Gottfried exclaimed "That is no cat!" The teacher asked whether he could do better and sent the child to a corner to draw. The cat that Gottfried drew was so lifelike that since then he became known as the Cat's Raphael:

5. Jedediah Buxton
Jedediah Buxton, born in Derbyshire, England, in 1707, couldn't write. By all accounts, he has no knowledge of science or history or anything else for that matter except for numbers. Jedediah, as it turned out, was one of the world's earliest mental calculators and savants.
Everything was numbers to Jedediah - in fact, he associated everything he saw or experienced with numbers. He measured the area of the village he was born in simply by walking around it. When he saw a dance, his whole attention was to count the number of steps of the dancers. At a play, Jedediah was consumed with counting the number of words uttered by the actors.
The mental feat of Jedediah Buxton was tested by the Royal Society in 1754 - his mathematical brain was able to calculate numbers up to 39 figures.

More on Alonzo Clemens

When he was a child, Alonzo Clemons suffered a traumatic brain injury that left him with a permanent learning disability. Barely able to speak and with an estimated IQ of 40, Clemons didn’t have much to look forward to in life—until he began sculpting. At school, he would sit silently in the back of the classroom, molding bits of clay into tiny animals. When his teachers took the clay from him, he began scraping bits of pliable tar from the pavement around his school and working on sculptures in his room at night.
Alonzo is now considered one of the most talented sculptors on the planet. He creates incredibly realistic sculptures of animals—mostly horses, antelopes, and bulls—after seeing an image of one for only a few seconds. According to his mother, he can see an animal on TV and then complete a sculpture of that animal in half an hour. Even though he is unable to tie his shoes or eat on his own, it seems his mind somehow grasps the shapes and forms that he sees, and his hands become a flawless conduit through which he can reproduce those images. When asked how he does it, Alonzo will simply smile and point to his head.
Where are my manners?!?! Didn't thank you for posting this! giggle giggle giggle

The 10 year-old boy sees me each time I volunteered at my friend's centre. I assumed he touched my face because he wanted to 'feel' it in order to get a better image?? dunno
I don't know what else to say other than he gets good-naturedly frustrated if there's one letter he can't work out to complete a puzzle (he won't guess, he has to sure, which is a bit of an autistic spectrum thing).

Likewise, his frustration if we tease him that he can't do them in Mandarin. giggle

I wouldn't be surprised if he could do them in Greek, or Cyrillic scripts, given half the chance, though. laugh
Interesting blog thumbs up

The word "idiot" means also a person who is always to their own.
In ancient greece.doh

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