Autistic Savants

Sometimes an autistic is a savant (pronounced sav-ONT), a person with "special skills." (The older, more insulting term is "idiot savant.") An autistic savant's abilities often come across as strangely machine-like. For example, one 6-year-old with autistic symptoms generated art like a laser printer, starting at one end of the paper and working to toward the other. His images were not exact duplicates of pictures he had seen-they were based partly on imagination. One of his creations, featuring Sesame St. characters, is shown in the following illustration.


A drawing produced by an autistic child [Author's files]

What is a savant? Autistic savants

His kindergarten teacher said the child drew this scene from the top of the page down, "the picture emerging as if being developed." When she asked him to draw an apple tree that the class had visited, he did it the same way, starting at the top of the tree and working down, completing it across its full width as he went.


Prime numbers "doodled" by an autistic child [Author's files]

Another autistic boy was fascinated with prime numbers. He could tell instantly if any number was a prime, up into 7 digit numbers. When left to himself, he often doodled prime numbers in various combinations.

Some autistics are calendar savants who can tell instantly the day of the week of any date in history. Others have perfect pitch; if you hum a note, they can tell you what note it is.

What do all the skills have in common?

What do all these skills have in common? They are based on rigid rule systems. The rules do not change, once you learn them. A prime number is always prime, a C# is always a C#. The autistic savant seems to channel all his or her energies into one talent that is used with fanatical devotion. After many years of such concentration, the autistic person may achieve exceptional abilities or expertise in using a particular skill. For some autistic individuals, these skills are a godsend, providing a means of gaining respect, self-esteem, and employment.

How can a special skill aid an autistic person? How doe the story of Stephen Wiltshire illustrate this?

One example of an autistic savant with a valuable skill was Stephen Wiltshire. Although capable of only limited forms of conversation and requiring care to attend to his day-to-day needs, Stephen had the ability to look at a building and immediately memorize its details. He could produce a sketch of the building (like the preceding example of the Sesame Street characters) that was not a literal copy but instead a stylized version of the original. In fact, Stephen's drawings were much more interesting than literal reproductions, having a definite artistic flair. At the age of 15 he published a book of his drawings titled Cities (Wiltshire, 1989). A sequel, Floating Cities, was published in 1991 and quickly became a best seller in England. This web page features many examples of art by autistic savants of varying ages:

http://www.luton.ac.uk/healthcare/psychology/artistic_savant.htm


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Copyright © 2007 Russ Dewey