This unique first-person account offers a window into the mind of a high-functioning, 27-year-old British autistic savant with Asperger's syndrome. Tammet's ability to think abstractly, deviate from routine, and empathize, interact and communicate with others is impaired, yet he's capable of incredible feats of memorization and mental calculation. Besides being able to effortlessly multiply and divide huge sums in his head with the speed and accuracy of a computer, Tammet, the subject of the 2005 documentary Brainman, learned Icelandic in a single week and recited the number pi up to the 22,514th digit, breaking the European record. He also experiences synesthesia, an unusual neurological syndrome that enables him to experience numbers and words as "shapes, colors, textures and motions." Tammet traces his life from a frustrating, withdrawn childhood and adolescence to his adult achievements, which include teaching in Lithuania, achieving financial independence with an educational Web site and sustaining a long-term romantic relationship. As one of only about 50 people living today with synesthesia and autism, Tammet's condition is intriguing to researchers; his ability to express himself clearly and with a surprisingly engaging tone (given his symptoms) makes for an account that will intrigue others as well.
The estimated prevalence of savant abilities in autism is 10%, whereas the prevalence in the non-autistic population, including those with mental retardation, is less than 1%.
There are many scientific mysteries still about savant syndrome. But two are especially intriguing. First is the conspicuous regularity in which the triad of mental impairment (often from autism) + impaired vision + musical genius occurs. Savant syndrome is rare, but the frequency of this triad is very conspicuous and disproportionate, beginning with some early cases around the time of Down’s first description of savant syndrome. Then, in the 1800s, Blind Tom was an international celebrity with prodigious musical ability and a number of present-day savant musicians including Leslie, Derek, Rex, Ellen, Tony, Eddie, Brittany and Kodi, to name only some, attest to the frequency of this triad. So common is this association between impaired vision and musical genius that Adam Ockelford has established a special school in London called SoundScape specifically tailored for persons with visual impairment and musical abilities. In his Focus on Music series, Ockelford at the University of London and the Royal National Institute of Blind People is carrying out studies on those types of blindness especially correlated with these musical abilities.
While most savants seem to be high functioning, many behave in a similar way to people with autism particularly when it comes to attention to detail. Interestingly, savants tend to have an obsession with details which surpasses similar behavior seen in people with Asperger’s Syndrome. They also often have similar language deficits as those exhibited by people with autism.
Research: Autistic Savants | Autism Research Institute
Modern researchers can utilize advances in medical technology, such as CAT scans and MRIs, to study savant syndrome and autism spectrum brain functioning as well. These technologies have opened up new windows into the minds of those with savant syndrome. As Treffert observes, “If we are really going to understand autism and savant syndrome, then we need to see the brain at work. By comparing and contrasting normal function and autistic or savant function, we can learn a lot more about normal functioning and creativity.” Thanks to modern imaging technology, researchers have learned that, when faced with neurological dysfunction, the brain can undergo a process which entails recruitment, rewiring, and release. Treffert sums up that process by saying, “When this occurs, the brain 'recruits' undamaged areas, 'rewires' itself to that area, and with that rewiring comes a 'release' of dormant capacity.” Doctors have observed that, in many cases of savant syndrome, damage to an individual's left hemisphere results in significant right brain compensation.
Research: Overview of Autism | Autism Research Institute
travelled to a number of countries and met with 51 savants and their families, completing the largest study performed on savants to date using uniform history taking and standardized psychological testing. Forty-one savants carried a diagnosis of autism and the remainder some other type of intellectual disability: 12 were rated as prodigious savants; 20 were rated as talented; and the remaining 19 had splinter skills. The savants in this series of cases had the following elements in common: neurological impairment with idiosyncratic and divergent intellectual ability; language and intellectual impairments consistent with autism; intense interest and preoccupation with particular areas of ability; rule-based, rigid and highly structured skills lacking critical aspects of creativity and cognitive flexibility; preserved neurological capacity to process information relating to the particular skills; a well-developed declarative memory; a family history of similar skills in some, but not all, cases but even in the absence of a history of a specific skill, there was a familial predisposition towards high achievement; and a climate of support, encouragement and reinforcement from families, case workers, teachers, caretakers and others.
The movie Rain Man exposed millions of people to autism as well as the autistic savant phenomenon. (Unfortunately, some people now have the impression that all autistic individuals have these abilities.) In the movie, Raymond displayed a great memory for ball player statistics, memorized parts of the telephone book, and counted cards in Las Vegas.
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Christophe Pillault, born 1982 in Iran and current resident of Olivet, France, is an autistic savant who is unable to talk, walk, or feed himself. But he uses his hands to express himself through paintings, and has had his work exhibited throughout the world.