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Special Autistic Abilities (Savant Behavior)

Tammi Reynolds, BA & Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

Special Autistic Abilities (Savant Behavior)

Though most symptoms of autism are deficits by nature, some people with autism, known as savants, display special abilities as a result of their condition. Savant abilities are not just special; they are extraordinarily special abilities that cannot be duplicated by most other human beings. These special abilities commonly coexist with the other severe disabilities that characterize moderate to severe forms of autism. Not all savants are autistic. However, the number of savants with autism is far greater than the number of savants without autism. Savants are rare even in the population of people with autism. Only ten percent of individuals with autism ever show any signs of savant talents.

Savants with autism typically show amazing skill within one or more general ability domains. Mathematical, artistic, musical, spatial and mechanical abilities are most common. Most savants have a single skills but some have been reported to have more than one. The savant with autism's skill is staggering and usually involves a remarkable memory. This memory is rote and very limited to the specific subject or skill. One savant with autism may be able to tell you what day of the week January 6th, 1805 was; what the weather was like that day as well as the phase of the moon. However, that same person may not be able to make change for a dollar or tell you how much a candy bar costs. Another savant with autism may be able to create an exact replica of the Mona Lisa in clay without referencing the painting, but also be completely unable to tell you what day of the week it is. The savant with autism retains the symptoms of autism along with his or her talent.

Perhaps the most well-known savant with autism is Kim Peek, who was the inspiration for Raymond from the movie Rainman. Kim Peek has a photographic memory. He is able to read with his left eye and his right eye simultaneously, reading pages of text in seconds while retaining about ninety-eight percent of the information. He has memorized world history and can accurately recite historical data from memory.

Treatment for savants with autism focus on building on their skills, using those skill as a means of creating social interaction and communication. In spite of their remarkable abilities, most savants with autism cannot live independently as adults.