Autistic Savants

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In our daily lives, we all come across anomalies that change the way we think. Some correct our faulty ways of thinking while others just make us start thinking.

Daniel Tammet can perform extraordinary feats such as learning Icelandic in a week and reciting the number pi up to the 22,514th digit. He is also a part of the small part of the population who have been identified as having synesthesia, the curious crossing of senses that allow one to hear colors and smell sounds. Synesthesia is incredibly rare. Vladimir Nabokov had it and in all probability, Keats too. This kind of makes it hard for common people to imagine the world the way they do, and one is bound to meditate on this ability.

But who is this man?

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Daniel Tammet is a “patient” of Autistic Savant Syndrome. He can perform feats as mentioned above and has written two books-http://www.amazon.com/Thinking-In-Numbers-Life-Meaning/dp/0316187372/?tag=braipick-20 and http://www.amazon.com/Embracing-Wide-Sky-Across-Horizons/dp/1416576185/?tag=braipick-20 . His “disorder” caused him and people like him to be born with a brain with uniquely wired circuits that allow excellent and impossible computational and memory skills.

Remember the movie “Rain Man”? This path-breaking movie made thousands of people aware of the Autistic Savant Syndrome. Raymond, in the movie, counted cards in Las Vegas, had a great memory of ball player statistics and even remembered parts of a telephone diary. But unfortunately, many people expect such exceptional abilities from autistic people as well.

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The term “autistic savant” refers to those people who have autism but exhibit skills that are not exhibited by most people. In a 1978 article in the journal Psychology Today, Dr.Rimland used the term “autistic savant”, which was used by Dr.Treffert and which slowly but completely replaced the French “idiot savant”, used by Dr. J.Langdon Down which meant “unlearned” and “skill” respectively. Incidentally, Dr.Down had coined “Down Syndrome”. It is estimated that about 10% of the autistic individuals exhibit the savant abilities, while the figures are less than 1% in the non-autistic population, including those having mental retardation. Which means, that such people are truly gifted. And rare. One might have often come across news flashes involving some day laborer or a child or some woman who could say the exact day it was, say, on 23rd March in 1954, within a matter of seconds. Having a “calendar memory” is one of the most common abilities of autistic savants, along with high numerical skills and incredible artists.

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Mathematical interest and the ability of visualizing numbers as the keys to every lock is a very common interest among these savants. Take Daniel for example. Growing up as one of nine siblings, he says that the pressure of being a small number in a large set spurred in him the appreciation of numbers, which he considers are the only “sense-making mechanisms for life”. Music is also a very common ability in these people. Many such performers often display a perfect pitch and a great memory for music. Needless to say, many of them are great artists as well. An article on autistic savants in “Reader’s Digest” once mentioned Richard Wawro. He is legally blind and draws in crayons, and his works sell often for more than $10,ooo. Even the Pope owns one of his paintings.

There is always a spectrum of savant skills. The most common are the “splinter skills”, which are related to an obsession for memorizing numbers, calendar dates, names, obscure items like sounds of different vacuum cleaner motors and even number plates. Talented savants are those cognitively impaired persons in whom the musical, artistic or other special abilities are more prominent and highly sharpened, usually within an area of single expertise and are very “visible” when viewed in contrast to overall disability. Prodigious savant is a term reserved for those extraordinarily rare individuals for whom the special skill is so outstanding that it would be spectacular even if it were to occur in a non-impaired person.

So, does it mean that you gotta be crazy (no offense meant) to be gifted? That you gotta be your method in the madness of the world?

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The exact cause of autistic savant syndrome is not known, although there have been various theories regarding this. There are not enough evidence to support the hypotheses. Dr.Rimland feels that autistic savants have very deep concentration skills which allow them to focus on an area of interest, thus leading to their exceptionally sharp skills. But then again, there is not enough data to support this. Some scientists and neurologists have opined that it is how the more functional areas of the brain “takes over” the lesser functioning areas, while some others argue that this phenomenon is actually the release of abilities already existing. In the case of right brain versus left brain capacity, some have referred to that substitution as a release ‘from the tyranny’ of the left, or dominant, hemisphere.

In many nations, especially in the still-developing and the downright underdeveloped ones, mental healthcare is not really a priority, let alone identifying such truly gifted people. Studies have shown that males are more affected than females. And since men are brought up with the belief that they are invincible and stringer than women, would anyone around them ever admit to their anomalies that need help?

Many days of the calendar are marked for many people, but how many hours are spent thinking about these savants? If they are geniuses in class, they are “geeks” or “nerds”. If they are more impaired than the rest and can’t function the way non-impaired persons can, they are “retards”. The problem is, we spend so much time labeling people, that we don’t bother enough about the origins of their problems. Doesn’t that make us “retards” too? For failing to understand the world around us with a little more reasoning?

Gifts are hidden. Sometimes from us and at other times, from broad daylight.

Believer. Reader. Brooder.