Getting to Know Savant Syndrome: Part II

Darold Treffert MD

What is Asperger’s Disorder?

Sometimes called “The little Professor” syndrome, most clinicians consider Asperger’s disorder to be persons who are at the high functioning end of the Pervasive Developmental Disorders and Autistic Disorders spectrum. Within a year of each other, independently and a continent apart, Dr. Leo Kanner described in 1943 what he called “Early Infantile Autism” in 11 of his patients, and Dr. Hans Asperger, in 1944, described what he called “Autistic Psychopathy” in four of his patients. Eventually Dr. Asperger described 200 such patients in his group but it was not until 1981 that the term Asperger’s Disorder was applied to such persons. Some of Asperger’s observations are described in greater detail elsewhere on this site at this link.

While Autistic Disorder and Asperger’s share many characteristics in common, there are some signs and symptoms more unique to Asperger’s such as often average to above average IQ although with scattered distribution; unusual interest and capability in natural sciences, complex calculations, computer programming or other areas of expertise which can be extensive and expansive; marked genetic roots with strong family histories of similar or related traits; early, rather than delayed, language and word recognition skills; poor motor coordination; and a generally higher level of social functioning than seen in Autistic persons but still with unusual, peculiar and naive social interactions. Characteristics shared between Asperger’s and Autistic Disorder include a 6:1 male:female sex ratio, prodigious memory, social withdrawal or uneasiness, intense interest in collecting things with strong attachments to those objects and obsession with sameness to name several.

Savant skills are very prominent in many Asperger’s individuals, certainly as high as in 10 percent of them, and it is often those highly specialized skills that bring Asperger’s persons to prominence. A December, 2001 article in Wired magazine, explored the apparent “explosion” of Autism and Asperger’s cases in the Silicon Valley of California, and raised questions about the continum of shared traits and strong family histories in persons with Asperger’s disorder and what TIME magazine, in a May 3, 2002 article called “for lack of a better word, Aspergery.” It is an interesting, continuing area of inquiry.

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