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Autistic savant

Autism is a puzzling disorder characterised by Specialised skill


developmental delays. A person with autism often has In all cases of savant syndrome, the skill is specific,
problems understanding the meaning and purpose of limited and most often reliant on memory. Generally,
body language and the spoken and written word. They savant skills include:
find social interaction difficult, confusing and scary.
Music the piano is the most popular
instrument. For example, the skill may be the
Autistic savant means a person with autism who has a ability to play the piano without being taught.
special skill. Savant comes from the French word for
knowing and means a learned person. A person with Art such as the ability to draw, paint or
this condition was once known as an idiot savant, since sculpt to high standards. For example,
idiot was an acceptable word for mental retardation in Richard Wawro is an autistic savant who is
the late 19th century, when the phenomenon was first also blind, but his crayon drawings command
medically investigated. Around 10 per cent of people with up to $10,000 each.
autism show special or even remarkable skills. For
example, a person with autism, who may be intellectually Mathematics for example, the ability to
disabled in most ways, could have an exceptional work out complicated sums in their head, or to
memory for numbers. calendar calculate (for example, work out
what day it was on 1 June1732).
Savant skills are occasionally found in people with other
Language in rare cases, the person may be
types of intellectual disability and in the non-disabled
unusually gifted in languages.
population, so most researchers use the term savant
syndrome instead of autistic savant.
Other skills such as knowing the time
without seeing a clock, untaught mechanical
skills, having an unfailing sense of direction or
A range of savant abilities the ability to commit maps to memory.
Around 10 per cent of people with autism show special or
even remarkable skills. The skills range includes:
The brains right hemisphere
Autistic savant behaviour is so far unexplained. However,
Splinter skills the most common type. The
researchers think it might have something to do with the
person, like an obsessive hobbyist, commits
right hemisphere of the brain.
certain things to memory, such as sports
trivia.
The brain is divided into two hemispheres, left and right,
bridged by a thick band of nerve fibres called the corpus
Talented skills the person has a more callosum. While left hemisphere skills are involved with
highly developed and specialised skill. For symbolism and interpretation (such as understanding
example, they may be artistic and paint words and body language), the skills of the right
beautiful pictures, or have a memory that hemisphere are much more concrete and direct (such as
allows them to work out difficult mathematical memory).
calculations in their head.
CT and MRI scans of the brains of autistic savants
Prodigious skills the rarest type. It is suggest that the right hemisphere is compensating for
thought that there are only about 25 autistic damage in the left hemisphere. It seems that the right
savants in the world who show prodigious hemisphere of an autistic savant focuses its attention on
skills. These skills could include, for example, one of the five senses for example, if it concentrates on
the ability to play an entire concerto on the hearing, then the autistic savant may have a special skill
piano after hearing it only once. in music. Research is ongoing.

See over
Their skills may be reinforced Where to get help
It is thought that habitual memory centres of the brain Your doctor
take over from higher memory centres, which helps to Autism Victoria Tel. (03) 9885 0533
explain why some autistic savants are like obsessive The Centre for Developmental Disability
hobbyists who do the same thing over and over. Apart Health Victoria (CDDHV) Tel. (03) 9564 7511
from habitual memory, other factors that may help an
autistic savant to hone their special skill could include:
The ability to focus and concentrate
Things to remember
Autistic savant means a person with autism
The desire to practise endlessly
who has a special skill.
Positive reinforcement by family, friends and
Around 10 per cent of people with autism
caregivers.
show special or even remarkable skills.
Every brain may have untapped savant Savant skills can be occasionally found in
skills people with other types of intellectual disability
San Franciscan neurologist Dr Bruce Miller recently and in the non-disabled population.
discovered new savant skills in some of his patients who
were undergoing a certain type of dementia. These
patients had a type of dementia that affected the left
temporal region of their brains (located over the left ear).
This page has been produced in consultation with, and approved by,
Autism Victoria. The Better Health Channel is part of the Department of
When the patients were given brain function tests, their Human Services, Victoria
results were similar to those of a young autistic savant.
Researchers from the Flinders University in Adelaide
were able to provoke new savant skills in volunteers by
using transcranial magnetic stimulation to temporarily
disable the frontal temporal lobe. (Transcranial magnetic
stimulation is a type of treatment for depression.) During
the test, five of the 17 volunteers showed new and
remarkable skills like calendar calculation. These studies
suggest that amazing savant abilities may be lying
dormant in all of us.

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