Savant Syndrome – A Gift or a Curse?
“I have been given the gift of solving complex engineering problems, but to pay for the gift I’m socially crippled”- John Robinson (Mechanical Engineer Savant).
I present that quote because I believe it speaks for everyone that has Savant Syndrome or is associated in any way with someone else who has it. Quotes like John’s are very similar to many quotes given by Savants during interviews or just randomly speaking to someone. I have been intrigued for some time with the study of Savant Syndrome and have been more interested when the majority of studies I see treat Savant’s as disabled people with “some random gift”. Through current studies I have discovered Savant Syndrome is not just simply genetic flaw, it can come out of nowhere and even be triggered by severe brain injury. To give an idea of how Autism affects the brain I included the actual brain scan of a person diagnosed with Autism. Autism is said to affect primarily the left side of the brain, which is exactly what this scan appears to show.
Methodology and Summaries
In conducting research of Savant Syndrome I came across four articles I feel best represent the general feeling of Savant Syndrome in society. One article was produced by The Roeper Institute and authored by Gregory L. Wallace Ph.D. This article discusses various studies done on Savant Syndrome and also Autism. Research conducted in this article concludes that Savant Syndrome is inextricably linked to Autism, neuropsychological studies of Autism Spectrum disorders may help to explain the raised incidence of Savant skills in this society, research into Savant disorders may lead to a better understanding of the difference between Savant skills as opposed to general giftedness (i.e. high IQ) (Wallace, 2008).
A second study conducted at the University of London by Neil O’Connor, Richard Cowan and Katerina Samella focused on the calendar calculating Savants. Throughout this study it was very clear they felt there was a direct connection to Autism or obsessive preoccupation (O’Connor, Cowan, Samella, 2000, p.31). These researchers believed Calendar calculating stemmed from Autistic traits and also just simply kids with lower levels of intelligence focusing on something easy to understand and very repetitious. This thought was centered around prior studies that Autism creates a weak central coherence (unable to focus on complicated things) (O’Connor, Cowan, Samella p. 31). The twist of this study is they conducted calendar calculation tests and based the results on the person’s IQ; stating the outcome of the study showed lower results for people with lower IQ (O’Connor, Cowan, Samella, 2000,p.31).
A third study I came across was a scientific article written by Darold A. Treffert and Gregory L. Wallace. The article was published in a 2003 edition of Scientific American Mind. This article takes a much different approach to Savants. The article discusses the author’s studies and findings of Savant syndrome being linked to Autism, spontaneous development later in life, brain disease and even brain injury (Treffert, Wallace 2003). Treffert outlines the life of Kim Peek, who is the real life “rain man” the movie with Tom Cruise was based on in 1988. Kim Peek cannot function socially but has photographic images of hundreds of books, can recall the day of the week of any date in time, and can even calculate many kinds of calculations instantaneously (Treffert, Wallace 2003). A study the two authors conducted revealed a genetic pattern in which it was discovered three out of every four people with Savant syndrome are males Treffert, Wallace 2003). One disease discovered that may spontaneously form a savant type skill, specifically artistic talents, is front temporal dementia (Treffert, Wallace 2003).
One of the last things this article discussed was people living with Savant syndrome usually keep their skills for life. However in one rare case that baffled everyone involved was that of a little girl named Nadia. At three years old Nadia was creating very elaborate, creative paintings; at seven years old she was enrolled in a school for speech therapy and as her speech was repaired she slowly lost her savant skill (Treffert, Wallace 2003). This was rare and very puzzling because up until this point it was widely believed people could not lose their specialized skills; actually it was believed the savant syndrome would be a basis for helping the person transfer their super abilities to help their everyday social skills (Treffert, Wallace 2003).
The final review I studied was a section of the Discovery Channel website. The specific topic was a research TV show titled “Ingenious Minds”. This show follows a select few people diagnosed with Savant Syndrome and how it affects their daily lives. Ingenious Minds discusses the social problems savants face. During their studies they follow a couple of the savants as they undergo brand new, experimental treatments in an effort to help them become more socially involved (Ingenious Minds 2010). Ingenious Minds follows savants who have developed their skills several ways. Some savants obtained their skills through Autism; one man named Derek Amato obtained his abilities after a severe brain injury. Amato fully recovered from the frontal lobe brain injury but realized he could play the piano, not only could he play the piano but he is now considered a piano savant (Ingenious Minds 2011). This source definitely gives us a look into the lives of savants and their struggles. Ingenious Minds follows the savants in an effort to show how they are portrayed as basically handicapped people and how people really have no understanding for what Savant Syndrome really is. Sadly this source also shows how people in the public can actually be cruel out of jealousy for the savant’s skills, or how some people will try to take advantage of their skills for their own financial gain.
After reviewing these four literary sources the one main agreement between them is that Savant Syndrome is greatly influenced by Autism in a majority of the cases (Cowan, et al., 2000;Wallace 2008;Treffert, Wallace 2003;Ingenious Minds 2011). Gregory Wallace’s article in 2008 took a very hard stance of Autism being inextricably linked to Savant Syndrome. O’Connor, Cowan and Samella based their theories of calendar calculations by savants around the assumption all savants had Autism. Autism is a genetic disorder in the left hemisphere of the brain causing the right side of the brain to over compensate, leading to specialized skills (Cowan, et al., 2000;Wallace 2008;Treffert, Wallace 2003;Ingenious Minds 2011). The left hemisphere of the brain is responsible for functioning qualities such as, rationalizing, decision making, empathy, and socialization. The right side of the brain is considered the creative side of the brain including, artistic ability, memory, mathematical ability and calendar calculations (Cowan, et al., 2000;Wallace 2008;Treffert, Wallace 2003;Ingenious Minds 2011).
In the article Islands of Genius by Gregory Wallace and Darold Treffert, the two authors explore many causes of Savant Syndrome including brain injury, disease, Autism, and genetic disorders. This article was published in 2003; Gregory Wallace published his article on Neuropsychological Studies of Autism in 2008. These articles are polar opposites of each other, but yet both include Gregory Wallace. In 2008 Gregory Wallace’s article takes a complete opposite approach by stating neuropsychological studies prove Autism is linked to all cases of Savant Syndrome. The 2008 article by Wallace never even mentions his earlier article Island of Geniuses in 2003. There is no clear reason Gregory Wallace goes from one opinion to the drastic opposite opinion in a few years span. While both articles have good information, Wallace’s 2008 article appears to be very one sided when referring to causes for savant skills while his 2003 article gives multiple causes. The information in both may be relevant and accurate; Gregory Wallace’s major change in opinion regarding Savant Syndrome has to be noted when reading his research in the future. Perhaps Gregory Wallace chose his stance in 2008 from strictly as a neuroscientist. Going with a black and white approach is after all what we learned from Seethaler and Sagan: scientists will choose a safe path sometimes just to be published.
“Island of Geniuses” and “Ingenious Minds” take very similar approaches to savants. Both sources believe in multiple causes of savant skills as well as there being successful treatments available (Treffert, Wallace 2003; Ingenious Minds 2011). Savant Syndrome has been proven to be caused by Autism without a doubt, but it also has been proven to be caused by brain disease, injury or simply spontaneous development (Treffert, Wallace 2003; Ingenious Minds 2011). Kim Peek is discussed heavily in these two sources as well. Kim Peek is the real life rain main, the movie “rain man” was based specifically on Kim Peek and his computer like calculation ability (Treffert, Wallace 2003; Ingenious Minds 2011). These two sources also go into great detail of how people with these rare abilities can certainly be taken advantage of. It is very sobering to know people have such greed and sense of self-promotion in life they will sink to these levels to obtain them. Perhaps one ironic touch to those situations is the savants have little to no social abilities and literally need to be taken care as a child. Taking advantage of their ability may seem like a good idea but once the selfish people realize the trouble it really is the poor savant is dumped and left almost to fend for themselves (Treffert, Wallace 2003; Ingenious Minds 2011). Luckily most savants are placed in specialized learning centers and have people who care about them around them.
These four articles are very informative but do yield different opinions. Most information you come across regarding Savant Syndrome goes hand in hand with Autism. This is one thing I would like to see changed a little. When studying savants there are many other factors, such as mental disease, injury and other spontaneous genetic causes. With so many other important causes I just believe each cause deserves equal amount of attention. For many years the main focus has been Autism, but people developing a savant skill without reason deserve some answers too. People with a savant skill can do amazing things in science and how do we know some important geniuses from the past were not savants themselves. We did not know about Autism until the 1700’s and did not begin studying Savant Syndrome until much later (Wallace, 2008).
History is littered with geniuses that had one specialized skill such as mathematics, calendar calculations, mapping the land and stars, and artists. Many of these geniuses were said to be very quiet and kept to themselves, we know this because many of their best accomplishments were accidentally found in their works after their deaths. I would like to pose the question, who is to say people such as Da Vinci, Nostradamus, Rene DesCartes and Mozart were not savants? These are just a few examples of people we could question. These four men all are documented to have one major specific skill, an artist, a calendar calculator, the father of mathematics and a musical genius from the age of 5. After researching Savant Syndrome I believe a case could be made for great minds of our past and perhaps we could learn much more about savants if were to link these great minds of the past. I also think making some connection to these minds may offer a little credibility to Savant Syndrome, not as a disability but as a gift with some consequences. I think if we can accept these gifts are real and focus the research more on how to help savants use their skills and become more socially inept we could unlock a great asset to science.
Cowan, R., O’Connor, N., Samella, K. (2000). Calendrical calculation and intelligence. Elsevier Science. Intelligence: 28(1): 31-48. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0160-2896(99)00028-8
Ingenious Minds. (2011). Retrieved from http://science.discovery.com/tv/ingenious-minds/
Treffert, D. A. & Wallace, G. L. (2003). Islands of genius. Scientific American Mind, 14-23. Retrieved from www.sciam.com
Wallace, G. L. (2008). Neurophysilogical studies of savant skills: Can they inform the neuroscience of giftedness? The Roeper Institute, 30, 229-246. Retrieved from http://www.thefreelibrary.com/Neuropsychological+studies+of+savant+skill…
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