Savant syndrome is a rare condition in which a person exhibits skills that far exceed the average, usually in a single area. This syndrome has many links to conditions like autism spectrum disorder, Asperger syndrome, and brain injuries. Because of its rarity, savant syndrome is often the subject of misinformation and rumor.
Because people who have savant syndrome frequently have other conditions, the general public often believes that the syndrome is responsible for those symptoms. While the presence of an underlying condition may contribute to savant syndrome, their symptoms are separate and distinct. Due to a lack of research, identifying savant syndrome can be extremely difficult.
Savant syndrome-related skills fall within a few areas. One study suggests that the vast majority of people with savant syndrome excel in memory-related skills. Having an exceptional memory enables a person to develop advanced skill in, for instance, visuospatial abilities, calculation, drawing, or music. Calendar calculation is the most common savant syndrome skill. Other common examples include perfect pitch, infallible map memory, and hyperlexia.
Researchers have attempted to uncover the cause of savant syndrome, without much success. Neurological experts believe that it stems from issues with the left anterior temporal lobe, which is responsible for visual memory, language comprehension, and emotion association. It is possible to induce savant syndrome by inhibiting this part of the brain, either purposefully or as the result of an injury.
Psychologists have also attempted to understand the underlying mechanisms behind savant syndrome. Some experts believe that people with autism and similar disorders are more capable of focusing on details, allowing them to hone specific skills. Others believe that those with the syndrome hyper-systemize, meaning they prioritize skill development over empathizing with other people. Both these theories are the subject of much criticism, causing there to be no widely-accepted theory.
While most people who have savant syndrome are born with it, it is possible to acquire the condition later in life. Brain injuries and diseases affecting the left anterior temporal lobe or the overall nervous system have been able to induce savant syndrome. Researchers can use transcranial magnetic stimulation to inhibit neural activity, activating savant syndrome temporarily.
Savant syndrome is extremely rare, though there are no definitive statistics due to the difficulty of recognizing the condition. Experts estimate that savant syndrome affects one in a million people. This number ranges from 1 in 10 to 1 in 200 for people who have autism. A Finnish study claims that males with savant syndrome outnumber females by 6:1. Around 50 cases of acquired savant syndrome have been reported.
Thanks to its unique characteristics, savant syndrome is the subject of misinformation and myths. While the syndrome is more common in people with neurodevelopmental disorders, it is still rare. Not everyone with autism or a similar condition will excel in a specific field. Additionally, a person with the syndrome can be creative and capable of improvisation, not just duplication or mimicry. Prodigies and gifted individuals exist separately from savant syndrome, and not everyone who excels early is a savant.
John Langdon Down, famous for his description of Down syndrome, coined the phrase "idiot savant" to describe savant syndrome in 1887. This phrase, meaning "learned idiot," is a misnomer. Using the definition of the time, "idiot" referred to a person with an intellectual disability. However, many people with savant syndrome do not have an intellectual disability. This, in combination with the changing definition of "idiot," has led to experts abandoning the original phrase in favor of “savant syndrome.”
Due to misunderstandings surrounding the term "idiot savant," some people seek treatment for savant syndrome. However, savant syndrome requires no treatment, though people with neurodevelopmental disorders may require special care. Additionally, conditions like autism or Asperger syndrome do not indicate that someone is less intelligent or capable. Evidence also shows that promoting savant syndrome skills leads to better self-esteem, opportunities for interaction, and employment options for people with developmental disorders.
Several people with savant syndrome have become famous thanks to their abilities. Stephen Wiltshire is an architectural artist who is famous for drawing intricate city skylines from memory. Kim Peek inspired the lead character of “Rain Man” thanks to his hyperlexia, calculation abilities, and exceptional memory. Temple Grandin, a celebrated animal behaviorist and livestock consultant, documented her personal experience of autism to educate others.
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