Banner by Dennis Doyle

Savant Syndrome: One in a Million

by Mercedes Nebroski

Eustasia Cutler knew something was different about her baby daughter. She refused to be held, did not make eye contact, and was not beginning to speak. After a visit to the doctor, little Temple Grandin was diagnosed with autism, a neurological condition that manifests in a variety of symptoms, which most commonly include difficulties with language and interpersonal skills. However, with intensive therapy and training, Temple attended school and eventually graduated from the University of Illinois with a doctoral degree in Animal Science. Even though Dr. Grandin’s story may not be familiar to you, most people who have eaten a hamburger in their lifetime have benefited from her work. Dr. Grandin has spent her illustrious career designing large-scale animal handling facilities and consulting on animal welfare for major corporations such as Wendy’s and Burger King. Possessing an uncanny ability for visualization and spatial awareness, along with a great deal of conviction for humane animal treatment, Dr. Grandin has revolutionized the field of industrial livestock handling.

Dr. Grandin is an example of a savant — an individual who, despite preexisting cognitive deficits or severe neurological injuries, possess specific areas of astonishingly advanced skills. Information about savant syndrome is difficult to pinpoint because it is not listed in the DSM-5 and less than one percent of the general population is affected. However, there are aspects of this condition that are well understood.

While savant syndrome has many potential causes, one of the most plausible theories involves left brain injury and right brain (or other intact brain tissue) compensation. This hypothesis holds up well in Dr. Grandin’s case, as brain scans show the right side of her brain is dominant. She also has an unusually large amygdala, which is a brain structure responsible for emotional processing, anxiety and fear — mental states strongly linked to autism, which is often associated with savant syndrome.

While the stereotypical image of a savant may be limited to an individual with extraordinary musical or mathematical skills, there are different categories of savants with their own unique strengths. Many possess splinter skills, or the ability to memorize large amounts of specific and highly specialized facts — the license plate numbers of vintage cars, for example. Others are talented savants, such as a young child who can play the piano by ear, who have strong, noticeable and very well developed talents. The most uncommon type of savant is the prodigious savant. These individuals may be classified as geniuses, even in comparison with individuals who do not have injuries or disabilities.

Like so many other interesting conditions, savant syndrome possesses its own minefield of misconceptions and myths, many of which contribute to an improper understanding of the condition. Each case of savant syndrome is infinitely more complex than any portrayal of the condition found in a movie or book.

One of the most widespread misconceptions about savant syndrome is that all savants have a low IQ. While is is true that savant syndrome can appear in individuals with variable degrees of cognitive disabilities, there are recorded cases of savant syndrome where IQ has been measured at average or above-average levels. It is important to consider that a disproportionate number of savants are autistic, lacking in verbal abilities. IQ score is partially based upon these verbal abilities. Thus, if an autistic individual takes an IQ test that is weighted towards an area of weakness, the score may give an inaccurate representation of that person’s total cognitive abilities. This can be the case in individuals with savant syndrome. Pianist Leslie Lemke, an autistic savant, has an IQ score between 35 and 55, which would normally be regarded as moderately retarded. However, at a concert in Texas, Leslie publicly displayed his powers of parallel processing (the brain’s ability to process multiple streams of information at once) when playing an unfamiliar piano piece alongside another pianist, separated by only a few seconds. This sophisticated level of cognition was not deemed possible with Lemke’s previously assigned IQ score. As Einstein said, “If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

Another common misconception is that savants are not creative individuals; instead, they are only capable of using their prodigious memories to imitate things they have heard, such as hearing a song on the radio once and being able to play it back by ear. This is only partially true. In fact, a certain trajectory of talent consisting of phases of replication, improvisation, and creation can be observed in numerous cases of savant syndrome. The talent of replicating a piece of music, or something of a similar nature, is certainly found in savants. After replication, improvisation begins. Savants may begin to provide variations of their own within their replicative skills, often beginning this phase with small, minor alterations. Commonly seen after improvisation is the creation stage, where the savant is capable of creating their own original body of work, which can be of stellar quality. By acknowledging the progression of skills typically demonstrated in savants, we can see that they are indeed capable of being creative.

Savant syndrome is an intriguing condition that has fascinated humanity and deserves to be understood at the most reliable level of detail we are currently capable of achieving. Through understanding the causes and manifestations of this condition, as well as the limits of typical IQ testing, these extraordinary individuals can be supported in the best way possible and become the most productive members of society they can be. Ideally, nurturing savants entails a childhood diagnosis of their disorder(s), as well as individualized education plans that develop their strengths and use them to improve daily functioning. Eustasia Cutler was determined to encourage her daughter to channel her talents in a positive direction; it is a great idea for all parents, regardless of their child’s development, to do the same.