Savant is a name used to describe a person who has extraordinary skills in a very specialized area, but who is nonetheless intellectually disabled. It properly describes a rare phenomenon or syndrome in which a person with a severe mental handicap displays genius-like ability in a narrow field or area.
The award-winning movie Rain Man brought attention to a mental condition in which a person, who is barely able to care for himself and who has trouble doing even the simplest tasks, can also be a prodigy in one specialized area. What distinguishes these rare individuals is that though mentally handicapped overall, they possess the ability to do one thing brilliantly, a talent that would be considered spectacular and extraordinary even if it were found in a person of normal abilities. It is a true puzzle to see a person who may be unable to interact normally with other people or who might never change his or her clothes or take a shower unless told, display phenomenal calculating, artistic, or musical ability.
The term "idiot savant" was first coined in 1887 by British physician John Langdon Haydon Down (1828–1896), after whom the genetic disorder Down syndrome was named. At that time, doctors actually used the word "idiot" to describe someone whose IQ was below a certain level. Down linked this term to the French word "savant," meaning "learned one," and put together a term that captured the essence of this bizarre and seemingly contradictory syndrome.
One of the earliest accounts of this phenomenon was given by American physician Benjamin Rush (1746–1813), who is considered to be the father of American psychiatry. In 1789, Rush described the phenomenal calculating capability of a severely retarded man named Thomas Fuller who, Rush said, "could comprehend scarcely anything, either theoretical or practical, more complex than counting." One example he gave of Fuller's unique ability was his answer to the question, How many seconds a person had lived who was seventy years, seventeen days, and twelve hours old? Fuller thought for only 90 seconds, then gave the correct answer of 22,210,500,800 seconds, even correcting for the seventeen leap years involved.
Autism: A disorder in development characterized by an inability to relate socially to other people and a severe withdrawal from external reality.
Genius: Extraordinary mental ability or creative power.
Intelligence: The ability to solve problems and cope successfully with one's surroundings.
Testosterone: A male sex hormone that stimulates sperm production and is responsible for male sex characteristics.
Today, the term "autistic savant" has mostly replaced the harsh-sounding "idiot savant," although others sometimes prefer the more generic "savant syndrome." A person who is autistic (pronounced awe-TIS-tik) or suffers from the neurological condition called autism (pronounced AWE-tizm) is extremely withdrawn, self-preoccupied, and barely interacts with others. Autistic individuals usually seem very strange to most people, as they sometimes have coordination problems and often display unusual, inappropriate, or exaggerated mannerisms and reactions. Their language, if expressed, may be bizarre, and altogether they usually cannot get by on their own. Autism is chronic, meaning that it does not go away, and it is incapacitating, meaning that even as adults, autistic people usually need constant supervision and support. When a person who is severely disabled in so many ways is able to do one thing at an extraordinary or even a prodigious level, it is both shocking and amazing.
Some of the things that a person with this syndrome can do will truly amaze us. The most common form of autistic savant are the mathematical calculators, some of whom display incredible calendar memory or who can calculate square roots and prime numbers in their heads with no hesitation.
Some musical individuals have both perfect pitch and an endless memory for music. This means they can hear a complicated piece and immediately play it back perfectly from memory. Others are gifted artists. Despite these differences, there are certain characteristics that most share. First, this is a very rare condition, since by no means are all or even some autistic people so gifted. One author suggests that there may be no more than twenty-five or thirty "prodigious savants" living at present. A few artistic or musical savants are somewhat famous since they perform or exhibit their work.
Further, their special skills are always in an extremely deep but narrow range of abilities. For example, some of these great mathematical calculators do not possess even simple arithmetic skills. Another savant who had never received any musical instruction whatsoever could play anything she heard on a piano, yet still had the mental age of someone less than three years old. Also, in almost every case, there were very rigid limits as to what these people could actually do with the talent they had. So although one might be able to recite all manner of detail or facts about something, he or she would not be able to apply that information in any other way than the narrow method they were used to. Obviously, most of these impressive feats are tied in some way to memory, and almost all of these individuals have a phenomenal memory for detail. Finally, such persons are most often male, with the male-to-female ratio being roughly six-to-one.
Medical science still does not have a single theory that is able to explain all the types of idiot savants. We do know that this condition can be both congenital (pronounced kon-JEN-ih-tul) meaning it exists at birth, or it can be caused or acquired through a certain type of brain injury or disease. One theory says that it is caused when the right side of the brain has to compensate for an injury of some sort to the left side. The skills associated with the brain's right hemisphere have more to do with concrete learning and artistic expression than the left side, whose skills are more abstract, logical, and symbolic. It is the right-side skills that the autistic savant possesses in great measure, while simultaneously possessing few or none of the left-side skills. Some speculate that this left-brain damage and right-brain compensation may occur while the individual is still a developing fetus. Others say that the high percentage of males suggests that the male hormone called testosterone (pronounced tess-TAHS-tur-own) is somehow involved during fetal development. However, all attempts to explain this phenomenon are still educated guesses, and most would readily admit that so far, science is completely baffled in trying to understand this amazing phenomenon.