Savant syndrome (also known as autistic savant) is a condition in which a person with a developmental disability 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 (hypercalculia), art, memory, or musical ability. Although termed a syndrome, it is not recognized as a mental disorder nor as part of a mental disorder in medical manuals such as the ICD-10 or the DSM-5.
Another form of savant syndrome is acquired savant syndrome, in which a person acquires prodigious capabilities or skills following dementia, a head injury or concussion, epilepsy or other disturbances. This syndrome is more rare, with a study by Darold Treffert in 2010 showing that in a registry of 319 known savants, only 32 had acquired savant syndrome.
Signs and symptoms
Savant skills are usually found in one or more of five major areas: art, memory, musical abilities, arithmetic, and spatial skills. The most common kind of savants are calendrical savants, "human calendars" who can calculate the day of the week for any given date with speed and accuracy, or recall personal memories from any given date. Advanced memory is the key "superpower" in savant abilities.
Approximately half of savants are autistic; the other half often have some form of central nervous system injury or disease. It is estimated that 10% of those with autism have some form of savant abilities.
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 of 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 that is not normally available to conscious awareness.
Savant syndrome results from damage to the left anterior temporal lobe, an area of the brain key in processing sensory input, recognizing objects and forming visual memories. Savant syndrome has been artificially replicated using transcranial magnetic stimulation to temporarily disable this area of the brain.
There are no objectively definitive statistics 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 children 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 "savant 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 description for the disorder. Like idiot savant, the term came to be considered a misnomer because only half of those who were diagnosed 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.
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