Savant Syndrome: Rain Man re-visited

Darold Treffert MD
Dr. Treffert

The world’s best known autistic savant is Raymond Babbitt as so marvelously portrayed by Dustin Hoffman in the movie Rain Man.  But Raymond Babbitt was a fictional character, albeit very accurately depicted.

I have been collecting examples of ‘real-life’ savants for a number of years now and published a report on 319 such individuals in the August issue of the WMJ, the Wisconsin Medical Journal, which documents a number of findings on this large sample.

First, 90% of this sample were congenital savants, that is, the spectacular savant ability was present from birth and emerged in early childhood.  10% were ‘acquired’ savants, that is ordinary persons with no extraordinary skills until there was a head injury or other brain disorder or disease such as epilepsy or dementia, for example.  Jason Padgett who provided his story in a lecture this Spring at Marian University, had a head injury after which he began to experience images which, when he finally drew them, turned out to be fractals, complex mathematical figures.  He since has become well versed in mathematics and extremely skilled as an artist in drawing, areas of no interest or ability to him prior to the head injury.  Other persons after such injury or disease have become very gifted artists or musicians.

Second, savant abilities are always superimposed on some underlying disability.  In 70% of these 319 cases that underlying disability was autism.  Approximately one in ten autistic persons have some savant abilities.  In the remaining 30% the underlying disability was some other disorder such as head injury or dementia, for example.  Why there is this close relationship between autism and savant syndrome, compared to other brain disorders, is an area of current research.

Third, males outnumber female savants approximately 4:1

Fourth, the most common savant skill is music, such as displayed by Leslie Lemke, a congenital savant as described in an earlier blog on this site.  Other skills in descending order of frequency were art, memory, mathematics, calendar calculating, polyglot language abilities, mechanical skills, athletic abilities, computer skills, and extrasensory perception.  55% of these savants had a single skill, and 45% had multiple skills.  Geographic distribution was from 33 different countries.

Savant syndrome, especially the acquired savant, hints at dormant potential within us all.  The key research, on-going, is how to tap those hidden skills without brain injury or disease.  Additionally, behind each of these enormously talented persons, is always some family member, friend or tutor which teaches us much about the power of love, determination, persistence, faith and hope.   Overall, this research on savant syndrome can propel us further along than we have ever been in better understanding, and appreciating, both the brain and human potential.

So, stay tuned.

Darold A. Treffert, M.D.

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