Results of a Case Study Research Project
By Dr. Trevor Clark — Autism Association of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia
Among the underserved minority of gifted children with disabilities are a group of children referred to as autistic savants. These gifted children, despite their often severely incapacitating disabilities in communication, social and on occasions, intellectual development, often display remarkable gifts or splinter skills in one or several domains. They are possibly the least recognised and underserved group of gifted underachievers.
Savant gifts, or splinter skills, may be exhibited in the following skill areas or domains: memory, hyperlexia (ie, the exceptional ability to read, spell and write), art, music, mechanical or spatial skill, calendar calculation, mathematical calculation, sensory sensitivity, athletic performance, and computer ability. These skills may be remarkable in contrast to the disability of autism, or may be in fact prodigious when viewed in relation to the non-disabled person.
Dustin Hoffman, in the movie Rain Man, played the character of Raymond, an autistic savant who displayed remarkable intellectual talent but was unable to function productively or independently. The prodigious gifts or talents of the majority of autistic savants are exhibited in obsessive and unproductive behaviours. These skills appear to have little functional application or meaning for the autistic savant and are often referred to as anomalous talents or skills.
This study trialed an educational curriculum (the Savant Skill Curriculum) using a combination of successful strategies currently employed in the education of gifted children (enrichment, acceleration and mentorship) and autism education (visual supports and social stories) in the attempt to apply, functionally, the often non-functional obsessive savant and splinter skills of a group of students with autism. In the design and implementation of a differentiated curriculum for a group of autistic savants, this study was a ‘world-first.’.
The Savant Skills Curriculum proved highly successful in the functional application of savant skills and an overall reduction in the level of autism for many subjects. Gains in behaviour, social skills and academic self-esteem were observed. Improvements in the communication skills of some subjects were also reported.
The study also explored further information in relation to the nature and development of savant skills. The results highlighted: the obsessive nature of savant skills; the high levels of challenging behaviours of savants in relation to their savant interests; the high levels of interest and motivation by the savant in their pursuit of savant activities; the early onset of savant skills in the absence of formal training; the familial link between the subject child’s savant abilities and giftedness or superior performance in other family members; insight into the types and various levels of savant skills, and evidence for the use of imaginative and creative methods in association with savant performance.
In conclusion, a combination of gifted and autism educational strategies are successful in educating the gifted child with autism, the autistic savant. Educators and caregivers should attempt to facilitate the functional use of savant and splinter skills in individual educational programmes. Using a strengths rather than a deficits approach centred upon interests and abilities should be used to teach adaptive behaviours for the child with autism. This positive approach applies equally to the education of all students with autism.