Savant syndrome occurs when a person with below normal intelligence displays a special talent or ability in a specific area.
Children who display savant syndrome have traditionally been referred to as idiot, retarded, or autistic savants. The negative connotations of the term "idiot" have led to the disuse of idiot savant. Because the syndrome is often associated with autism, the term autistic savant is more frequently heard. The first known description of a person displaying savant syndrome occurred in a German psychology journal in 1751. The term savant was first used in 1887 by J. Langdon Down (the doctor for whom Down syndrome is named).
About half of all children with savant syndrome are autistic. Approximately 10 percent of all children with autism have savant syndrome. The rate increases to 25 percent of children with autism who have an IQ over 35. (Many autistic children have lower IQs.) About three times as many boys as girls have savant syndrome. This may be because more boys than girls are affected with autism. Less than 1 percent of the non-autistic population, including those with mental retardation and other developmental disorders, have savant syndrome.
Causes and symptoms
The causes of savant syndrome were as of 2004 not known. Some researchers hypothesize that it is caused by a change in a gene or genes, and others believe that it is caused by some kind of damage to the left hemisphere of the brain with compensation for this injury occurring in the right hemisphere. The reasons for the syndrome are not at all clear, however, and more research needs to be done.
Children with savant syndrome have an exceptional talent or skill in a particular area, such as the ability to process mathematical calculations at a phenomenal speed. Savant skills occur in a number of different areas, including music, visual arts, and mathematics. Experts believe that the most common skill demonstrated by savants is extraordinary memory. Children with savant syndrome may be able to memorize extensive amounts of data in such areas as sports statistics, population figures, and historical or biographical data. One particular skill common to those with savant syndrome is the ability to calculate what day of the week a particular date fell on or will fall on.
Savant syndrome is diagnosed when a child's ability in one area is exceptionally higher than would be expected given his or her IQ or general level of functioning.
Savant syndrome is not known to have any drawbacks, so it does not have to be treated itself. The underlying disorders that usually accompany savant syndrome need to be treated, and it is believed that making use of the special talent of the child with savant syndrome may help treat the child's underlying developmental disorders.
The special skill associated with savant syndrome in a specific child is usually present for life. There has been at least one report of the skill being lost when progress was gained in other areas, but this appears to be very rare. In general, if the level of the skill changes it improves as the skill is practiced.
There is no known way to prevent savant syndrome.
Children with savant syndrome have a very special skill that can be nurtured. These children may respond better to treatments for any underlying disorder that make use in some way of the childs special underlying interest and talent.
Autism—A developmental disability that appears early in life, in which normal brain development is disrupted and social and communication skills are retarded, sometimes severely.
See also Autism.
Hermelin, Beate. Bright Splinters of the Mind: A Personal Story of Research with Autistics Savant. Philadelphia: J. Kingsley, 2001.
Bolte, Sven, and Fritz Poustka. "Comparing the Intelligence Profiles of Savant and Nonsavant Individuals with Autistic Disorder." Intelligence–32, no. 2 (June 2004): 121131.
Edelson, Stephen M. "Autistic Savant." Center for the Study of Autism. Available online at <www.autism.org/savant.html> (accessed October 17, 2004).
Tish Davidson, A.M.