The Rain Man Disease: Savant Syndrome

Learn more about savant syndrome, the Rain Man's rare and amazing condition.

Young boy is learning basic mathematical concepts like counting, addition and subtraction.
Credit: Linda Epstein/E+/Getty Images

The 1988 movie introduced people to a rare but amazing disorder called savant syndrome. In the movie, Dustin Hoffman sensitively portrays the character Raymond Babbitt, who has autistic disorder. When Raymond's brother, Charlie, comes to visit, he discovers that Raymond also has an astounding memory for baseball statistics, the phone book, and the ability to count cards in Las Vegas.

Savant Syndrome Occurs with Brain Dysfunction

Savant syndrome is extremely rare.

People with neurodevelopmental disorders such as autistic spectrum disorder may be born with savant syndrome, but it can also develop later in childhood or even adulthood after a brain injury or with a certain type of dementia (this type is referred to as acquired savant syndrome). Savant syndrome occurs more frequently in males than females.

Range of Skills in Savant Syndrome

People with savant syndrome have an amazing memory that is very focused in one area. The most common behaviors demonstrated by people with the syndrome are obsessive preoccupations with:

  • trivia (facts about U.S. presidents, for example)
  • license plate numbers
  • maps or obscure items

Some people have startling artistic or musical abilities. For example, one man can hear a piano concerto only once, then play it perfectly. Other people with the syndrome have outstanding mathematical skills, such as being able to perform complex calculations within a few seconds.

Some can also perform calendar calculations, meaning given any date past or future the person can tell what day of the week it is.

Formerly Called Idiot Savant

People with savant syndrome were described in the medical literature as early as 1751, but the name "idiot savant" was not applied until 1887, when Dr. J.

Langdon Down (who also named Down syndrome) coined the term. It referred to the fact that people with savant syndrome were thought to have very low IQ ("idiot" in the terminology of the day) but yet were very knowledgeable ("savant" from French savoir, to know).

There are some dramatic examples of the condition exhibited by Individuals who score very low on IQ tests. These individuals demonstrate exceptional brilliance in a specific area, such as musical ability, art memory or mathematical calculations, while at the same time having social and developmental problems.

The more dignified and accurate term "savant syndrome" is now used, although it is not recognized as a mental disorder. Some refer to the condition as "autistic savant," but only about half the people with the syndrome are also autistic.

Savant Syndrome Statistics

At the moment there are no definitive statistics done by an objective party about the number of people with savant skills. There are estimates that 1 in 10 people with autism has savant skills in varying degrees.

 Scientists believe that studying savant syndrome will provide clues about brain function. They believe that finding out what causes the syndrome could provide information about what ​intelligence really is and how different types of memory work within the brain.

Perhaps this type of research might discover that there are special abilities inside each person, a hidden genius or prodigious talent waiting to be tapped.

Sources:

Treffert DA. The savant syndrome: an extraordinary condition. A synopsis: past, present, future. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2009 May 27;364(1522):1351-7.

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