What Is an Autistic Savant or Genius?

What Makes an Autistic Person a "Savant?"

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What Is a Savant?

A savant is a person who is diagnosable with savant syndrome -- a condition which, according to Darold A. Treffert, MD of the University of Wisconsin Medical School, Madison,

“... is a rare, but extraordinary, condition in which persons with serious mental disabilities, including autistic disorder, have some 'island of genius' which stands in marked, incongruous contrast to overall handicap. As many as one in 10 persons with autistic disorder have such remarkable abilities in varying degrees, although savant syndrome occurs in other developmental disabilities or in other types of central nervous system injury or disease as well. Whatever the particular savant skill, it is always linked to massive memory.”

In other words:

  • Savants may or may not be autistic.
  • Savants always have impressive memories, but may also have other extreme abilities.
  • A savant is someone who has significant challenges which belie their unique and extreme abilities in one area. They may have a very low IQ or other mental challenges -- and yet show almost super-human strengths in one very specific area.

Often, savant abilities are linked to extraordinary abilities in the areas of math, music and memory. Famous savants like Kim Peek, the model on which Dustin Hoffman's Rain Man character was based, could almost instantly calculate dates for any event hundreds of years into the past or the future. Peek was, however, never diagnosed with autism.

What Is an Autistic Savant?

Anyone who has seen the movie Rain Man has heard the expression “autistic savant.” An autistic savant is someone with autistic symptoms who also has a single extraordinary area of knowledge or ability.

According to some studies, about 1 in 10 people with autism are also called savants.

It’s important to note that “savants” and “talented autistic people” are not the same thing. There are many autistic people with ordinary talents--but savant syndrome is rare and extreme. In other words, a person with autism who is able to calculate well, play an instrument, or otherwise present himself as highly capable is not by definition a savant. A talented and intelligent individual with autism, such as livestock expert Temple Grandin, is certainly bright and capable -- but she is not a savant.

Is Savant Syndrome a Good Thing?

It’s fairly common for parents of a child with autism to be told how lucky they are that their child is autistic, since autism implies great intelligence and ability.

The reality, however, is that few people with autism are savants, though many are very intelligent. 

It is tempting to see savant syndrome as a positive thing. After all, savants are very impressive people with abilities beyond those of ordinary folks. The reality, however, is that it doesn't necessarily make life easier and, in some cases, it can make life more difficult.

In some cases, autistic savants have extraordinary abilities that can be expanded or channeled in useful directions. For example, some uniquely talented autistic artists and musicians are able to sell their work (almost always through parents or managers). In most cases, though, savant skills are "splinter skills," meaning skills that, while real and significant, are not useful in daily life. For example, the ability to recite pages of the phone book from memory, while a prodigious feat, serves no meaningful purpose outside of itself.



C Hou et al. "Autistic savants." Neuropsychiatry Neuropsychol Behav Neurol. 2000 Jan;13(1):29-38.

D.A. Treffert. "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.

D.A. Treffert. :The savant syndrome and autistic disorder." CNS Spectr. 1999 Dec;4(12):57-60.

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