Savant syndrome is a condition in which a person with a serious mental disability, such as an autism spectrum disorder, demonstrates profound and prodigious capacities or abilities far in excess of what would be considered normal. People with savant syndrome may have neurodevelopmental disorders, notably autism spectrum disorders, or brain injuries. The most dramatic examples of savant syndrome occur in individuals who score very low on IQ tests, while demonstrating exceptional skills or brilliance in specific areas, such as rapid calculation, art, memory, or musical ability. In spite of the name "syndrome", it is not recognized as a mental disorder nor as part of mental disorder in medical manuals such as the ICD-10 or the DSM-IV.
According to psychiatrist Darold Treffert, almost all savants have prodigious memory which he describes as "very deep, but exceedingly narrow." It is narrow in the sense that savants may exhibit exceptional memory but have difficulty putting it to use. Some individuals with savant syndrome also have a keen sense of priority, which can involve a broad understanding of politics, law, and a conceivably heightened vocabulary. Savant skills are usually found in one or more of five major areas: art, musical abilities, calendar calculation, mathematics and spatial skills. 50% of savants have autism; the other 50% often have some other forms of central nervous system injury or disease.
Savant syndrome is poorly understood. No widely accepted cognitive theory explains savants' combination of talent and deficit. It has been suggested that individuals with autism are biased towards detail-focused processing and that this cognitive style predisposes individuals either with or without autism to savant talents. Another hypothesis is that savants hyper-systemize, thereby giving an impression of talent. Hyper-systemizing is an extreme state in the empathizing–systemizing theory that classifies people based on their skills in empathizing with others versus systemizing facts about the external world. Also, the attention to detail savants is a consequence of enhanced perception or sensory hypersensitivity in these unique individuals. It has also been confirmed that some savants operate by directly accessing low-level, less-processed information that exists in all human brains but is normally unavailable to conscious awareness.
There is no agreement about how many people have savant skills. The estimates range from "exceedingly rare" to one in ten people with autism having savant skills in varying degrees. A 2009 British study of 137 parents of autistic children found that 28% believe their offspring met the criteria for a savant skill, defined as a skill or power "at a level that would be unusual even for normal people". As many as 50 cases of sudden or acquired savant syndrome have been reported.
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 mental retardation. 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.
Society and culture
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A prodigious savant is someone with a skill level equivalent to or greater than that of a prodigy, regardless of any cognitive disability. The most common trait of prodigious savants is their seemingly limitless mnemonic skills, with many having eidetic or photographic memories. Prodigious savants are extremely rare, with fewer than one hundred noted in more than a century of literature on the subject. Treffert estimates that fewer than fifty or so such individuals are alive today.
The following are well-known people with savant syndrome, noted for their talent in their identified fields:
- Tom Wiggins, blind American pianist and composer
- Alonzo Clemons, American clay sculptor
- Tony DeBlois, blind American musician
- Jason Hughes, English sociologist
- Leslie Lemke, blind American musician
- Jonathan Lerman, American artist
- Derek Paravicini, blind British musician
- Anthony Torrone, American Christian writer
- Gilles Tréhin, artist, author
- James Henry Pullen, gifted British carpenter
- Matt Savage, American autistic jazz prodigy
- Henriett Seth F., Hungarian autistic savant, poet, writer, and artist
- Stephen Wiltshire, British architectural artist
- Richard Wawro, British artist
- George and Charles Finn, calendar calculator twins
- Florence 'Flo' and Katherine 'Kay' Lyman, calendar calculator twins
- Daniel Tammet, British author
- Rex Lewis-Clack, blind American pianist
- Jason Padgett, obtained fractal drawing skills following a mugging incident.
- Kim Peek, American "megasavant" with exceptional memory
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- Featured in a documentary produced by TV network TLC entitled Twin Savants: Flo & Kay Tracey Eagan (2009-05-06). "Twin Savants Fixated on Dick Clark". Jezebel. Retrieved 2009-07-19.
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- ABC News: Nightline from ABC News : Man Becomes Genius After Head Injury. http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/health/2012/04/27/real-beautiful-mind-accidental-genius-draws-complex-math-formulas-photos/