The Savant Syndrome

Mar 17, 2009
*Special to asia!
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Leslie Lemke was born prematurely in 1952 and developed retinal problems and glaucoma. He subsequently had his eyes removed surgically in the first months of life. He is also mentally handicapped and has cerebral palsy. And although Leslie has never had a music lesson in his life, he can repeat flawlessly on the piano whatever is played to him after a single hearing.

When Stephen Wiltshire was attending a school in London for special children, he was extremely withdrawn and almost mute. He was described as being autistic at five. And yet, Stephen is now recognised as an extraordinary artist as he can reproduce precise and detailed drawings of any architectural structure after a brief viewing. It is almost as if his brain takes a snapshot of what he sees.

Both Leslie and Stephen are savants.

The life of a savant even made it to the big screen in the portrayal of an autistic savant by Dustin Hoffman in the award-winning movie “Rain Man” back in 1988. And despite all that is written and researched about savants, it is still a mystery as to how savants may not be able to speak much or perform basic everyday tasks – but yet have tremendous memory, can calculate at lightning speed, or produce amazing works of art and music.

World leading researcher on the savant syndrome, Dr Darold A.Treffert describes the savant condition on his website as a rare, but spectacular, condition in which persons with various developmental disorders, including autistic disorder, have astonishing islands of ability, brilliance or talent that stand in stark, markedly incongruous contrast to overall limitations.

A Wisconsin psychiatrist, Dr Treffert has been studying the savant syndrome for nearly 40 years. Based on his findings, he wrote that only one in 10 autistic persons have the savant syndrome, in varying degrees. Meanwhile, only 1% of those with mental retardation or brain injury display the savant skill.

As there are more people with mental retardation compared with autism, he estimated that about half of the savants are autistic while the other half has other forms of developmental disability. “Thus not all savants are autistic, and not all autistic persons are savants,” Dr Treffert said.

Savant skills exist over a spectrum of abilities. The most common are splinter skills and they include the obsession with, and memorization of, music and sports trivia, licence plate numbers, maps, historical facts, or obscure items such as vacuum cleaner motor sounds, for example.

However, there are specially gifted savants whose musical, artistic, mathematical or other special skills are more prominent. They are deemed prodigious.

According to Dr Treffert, prodigious is a high threshold term reserved for savants whose abilities would be spectacular and labelled ‘genius’ if seen in a non-disabled person. In an e-mail interview, he said that there are probably fewer than 100 prodigious savants living worldwide who would meet this high threshold of special skill.

The savant syndrome should not be mistaken as a disorder or disease on its own. It is extraordinary skills grafted onto a more basic brain dysfunction. As such, Dr Treffert said the 'treatment' for savant syndrome is the same treatment as that directed towards the more basic central nervous system disorder. So, in the case of a savant-autistic, ‘treatment’ used would be programmes for those in the autistic spectrum.

However, he believes that the special skills possessed by savants can be used in the overall treatment and rehabilitation so as to overcome or lessen the handicaps from the more basic developmental disorder.

In many cases, the extraordinary abilities can be used as a way of engaging the savant in improved communication capacity, improved social interaction, and improved mastery of even daily living skills with movement, and thus toward greater independence overall, Dr Treffert added.

Ruth Wong traded her job as a journalist for the hectic schedule of school runs nearly a decade ago. Since then, she has had the priviledge of teaching and learning from special kids, especially those with autism. Ruth recently relocated from Malaysia to Singapore and is discovering the joys of connecting with troubled teens.