Getting to Know Savant Syndrome: Part III

Darold Treffert MD

Why is savant syndrome seen more frequently in males than females?

Savant syndrome does occur four to six times more frequently in males than females. Partly that is due to the fact that savant syndrome occurs in as high as 10 percent of individuals with autistic disorder where that same disproportionate male:female ratio is seen. Even beyond that, however, research by Geschwind and Galaburda, explained in greater detail elsewhere on this site, demonstrated in the developing human fetus the left hemisphere of the brain always completes its development later than the right hemisphere. Therefore the left hemisphere of the brain is exposed for a longer period of time than the right to brain insult or injury of any kind. One such type of neuronal damage can be produced by circulating testosterone, which in the male fetus, reaches very high levels and can be, in some instances, neurotoxic. This same testosterone mediated developmental injury, causing left hemisphere brain damage before birth in males may account for the same highly disproportionate male:female ratio seen in some other forms of CNS injury such as stuttering, dyslexia, hyperactivity, other learning disabilities and autistic disorder itself.

When was savant syndrome first discovered?

No doubt savants have been present throughout history. Although the term “savant” was not applied to these special people until 1887 by Dr. J. Langdon Down, as described below, a report describing Jedediah Buxton, a prodigious lightning calculator who performed the most complicated multiplications and divisions swiftly in his head, appeared in a German Psychology Journal, Gnothi Sauton, as early as 1751.

Then in 1789, Dr. Benjamin Rush, often referred to as the father of American Psychiatry, described in detail the lightning calculating skills of Thomas Fuller “who could comprehend scarcely anything, either theoretical or practical, more complex than counting.” When Fuller was asked how many seconds a man had lived who was 70 years, 17 days and 12 hours old he gave the correct answer of 2,210,500,800 in 90 seconds even correcting for the 17 leap years included.

But it was in 1887 that Dr. J. Langdon Down gave a series of lectures before the Medical Society of London based on his 30-year experience as superintendent of the Earlswood Asylum. In those lectures, he described 10 cases in careful detail of instances in which there was a striking contrast of superiority and disability in the same person. The special abilities included extraordinary musical, artistic, mathematical and mechanical skills always coupled with phenomenal memory in each and every case. One individual built exquisite model ships from hand-fashioned parts and could recite complex texts verbatim. Another boy, after attending opera, would come away with a perfect recollection of all the arias. Another lad had memorized The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire in its entirety and could recite it forward or backward. Still another young man could multiply multi-digit figures in his head as quickly as they could be written down on paper.

Dr. Down is best known for having named Down’s Syndrome. But the cases of special abilities in otherwise severely disabled individuals caught his attention as well, and he coined the term idiot savant for these extraordinary individuals, linking those two words together because at that time the term idiot was an accepted scientific term for IQ below 25, and savant, or “knowledgeable person,” was derived from the French word savoir meaning “to know.” Dr. Down meant no harm by the term “idiot,” and in fact he apologized for having to apply it - “I have no liking for the term. It is so frequently a term of reproach” he cautioned - but it was the accepted scientific term for a level of mental retardation at that time. While descriptive perhaps, the term idiot savant was actually a misnomer since almost all reported cases since that time occur in individuals with IQ above 40. In the interest of accuracy and dignity the term, Savant Syndrome has been substituted and widely accepted. That term is preferable to autistic savant because only about one-half of persons with savant syndrome are autistic, and the other half have developmental disabilities or other forms of central nervous system injury or disease.

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