Savant syndrome is when someone has a remarkable talent or skill with a developmental difference or brain injury. Savant syndrome occurs more often with autism than with other conditions.
You may have seen the movie “Rain Man” and been awed by character Raymond Babbitt’s mathematical ability and memory.
Maybe you’ve watched the television series “The Good Doctor” and marveled at Shaun Murphy’s ability to envision solutions for his patients by visualizing the mechanisms of their illnesses or injuries.
Though rare, savant syndrome is a real condition featuring extraordinary ability in an area like art, memory, or math.
Savant syndrome is exceptional talent or ability paired with a developmental difference, disorder, or brain injury. The observed talent or skill exceeds the individual’s apparent intellectual or developmental level or is superior when compared to the typically developing population.
An example is autistic artist Stephen Wiltshire, who can draw detailed city drawings from memory. Another is Kim Peek, who had an extraordinary ability to memorize data with multiple areas of expertise. Peek was the inspiration for the 1988 film “Rain Man.”
Unlike the “Rain Man” character he inspired, Peek was not an autistic savant. Instead, he was born without an important brain region called the corpus callosum, and a genetic condition called FG Syndrome. Doctors believe that his savant ability arose from the atypical brain connections that formed to compensate for his missing corpus callosum.
Savant abilities can occur in a wide range of areas, but there are several that show up more frequently:
- calendar calculation
- memory recall
- mechanical aptitude
- computer skill
- extrasensory perception
Researchers believe that some types of savant skills may arise from extended practice since there doesn’t seem to be a difference in intelligence level between savants and non-savants.
True savant syndrome is exceedingly rare. A 2015 report says there were only 319 savants in a worldwide registry. Out of this sample, 90% were congenital (savant skills present from birth) and 10% were acquired.
Out of the congenital group, 75% were autistic. The remaining 25% had other central nervous system disorders.
Savant syndrome occurs more often in males than females at a ratio of 4:1 or 6:1 depending on the source.
The savant registry report indicates that about 10% of autistic children show some savant ability. And in 2009 research involving 137 autistic people, as many as 37% showed either savant skills or unusual cognitive skills.
Some autistic children are gifted, meaning they have an extraordinary ability, a high IQ, or both. When a kid is autistic and gifted this is known as being twice-exceptional.
More research is needed to clarify the reason why autism and savant syndrome are connected, but several theories offer some insight:
Less focus on social skills, more focus on special interests
Researchers believe that when autistic people with theory of mind differences are less tuned into the social world around them, they use fewer cognitive (mental) resources to monitor social interactions. These resources could be used to develop savant-level proficiency in their area of specialized interest.
When clinicians assess for autism, they look for traits in two areas:
- reductions or differences in social communication
- restricted interests and repetitive behaviors
Restricted or specialized interests can lead to obsessiveness, which researchers theorize may contribute to savant ability.
A talent for creating systems
Many autistic people have a talent for creating systems, also called systemization.
This includes the “if this, then” rules autistic savants can apply to predictable calendar patterns. This can result in the savant skill of calendar calculation.
Research from 2013 indicates that autistic people have a neurological affinity for veridical mapping. This means they use higher-order cognitive operations, like rule usage or evaluative thinking, to notice patterns, which makes it easier for them to remember and retrieve them.
Through this process, the individual has an enhanced ability to discriminate small details and detect patterns.
Heightened sensory sensitivity
Some autistic people have exceptional attention to detail. This may come from heightened sensory sensitivity, including better tactile (touch), visual, and auditory (hearing) perception.
This extra sensory information may affect an autistic person’s information processing at a young age and lead to savant ability. It can also lead to problems with sensory overload.
Synaesthesia is more common in autism
Synaesthesia is a phenomenon where you have additional sensory experiences from unexpected stimuli, like hearing a particular sound when you see a certain color.
Types of synesthesia include:
- grapheme-color synesthesia, where different letters of the alphabet appear in different colors
- number-form synesthesia, where numbers appear as spatial maps around you
- chromesthesia, where sounds automatically make you experience colors
Autistic savants experience more synaesthesia than non-savants. Some savants may over-rehearse skills connected to this phenomenon. They may also experience enriched memory when items are encoded in pairs (like numbers paired with colors). This pair encoding is a function of veridical mapping.
Savant syndrome occurs more often with autism than without.
Acquired savant syndrome occurs because of a neurological disorder like major neurocognitive disorder (dementia), or an event like a stroke or head injury.
Foreign accent syndrome is a rare example, in which a neurological event like a head injury causes a person to speak fluently in a language they previously didn’t know well.
A 2021 case series details the occurrence of a new type of savant syndrome where savant ability occurs suddenly in a neurotypical person, sometimes with no apparent cause. There isn’t always an injury or disability connected to sudden savant syndrome.
Of the 11 sudden savants studied, only six had coincidental circumstances they thought might have contributed, including things like menopause, fever, and traumatic stress.
Savant syndrome is the combination of high ability in a specific area with a developmental difference, disability, or neurological event like a stroke or brain injury.
Savant syndrome occurs most often in autistic people. Researchers believe that autistic traits — including differences in attention and special interests — might be contributing factors.
Researchers have recently become aware of a third category they call sudden savant syndrome that occurs in non-autistic people with no disability.