People with mental disabilities often find it difficult to function in the same way as those without one. Simple activities can require a significant effort, and conditions such as autism limit their communication and interaction abilities. This does not necessarily extend to all areas of their lives, and in many cases there are people with mental disabilities who are exceptionally advanced in a specific way. When this happens it is referred to as savant syndrome, and those that have them are known as savants.
There are normally five areas in which these extraordinary skills can appear and these are:
- Calendar Calculation – These savants are able to accurately determine the day of the week for any given date. This is the most common form of savant syndrome.
- Spatial Skills
Even after studying savants for many years, the only conclusive evidence doctors have found as to where these skills originate is the fact that they all have damage to the left anterior temporal lobe. This is where the brain forms visual memories, processes sensory information and recognizes objects.
50% of the known savants in the world are autistic, and 10% of people with autism are savants. The number of male savants also outnumbers females by 6:1. Even though most savants are born with a mental disability that facilitates their skills, it is also possible to acquire savant syndrome from either dementia or a severe head injury. This condition is less common and is called acquired savant syndrome.
Savants are categorised into three different groups:
Splinter Savants – The savants in this group memorise trivia, license plate numbers, historical facts and other bits of collectable information.
Talented Savants – These savants each possess a skill in one area only, normally music or art, and it is in direct contrast to their other abilities which may be severely lacking.
Prodigious Savants – These people have skills that would be exceptional in somebody with normal brain capacity, and are even more extraordinary in those that are mentally disabled. There are currently less than 100 known prodigious savants in the world.
Regardless of the group that they are in, most savants have amazing memories. From observing them it has been found that whatever their skill is they either maintain the same level throughout their lives, or increase it by a process of replicating (reproducing something down to the final detail perfectly), improvising (spontaneously performing) and then creating their own unique pieces.
The Rain Man, starring Dustin Hoffman, was based on the real life of Kim Peek. ‘Kimputer’ is a savant who was born with severe brain damage which makes it difficult for him to perform everyday tasks, including walking. He has, however, read in excess of 12000 books and remembers everything on every page of every one of them. Kim has even surpassed the imagination by learning to read two pages at once (one with each eye) in approximately 3 seconds. In addition he also remembers all the music he has ever heard, as well as being a calendrical savant. How is that for extraordinary?