Savant syndrome occurs when a person has a specific extraordinary talent alongside living with a serious developmental disorder or divergence. In this Verywell Mind article, Mindpath Health’s Zishan Khan, MD, explains why it occurs more frequently in people with autism.
Savant syndrome is an extremely rare but genuine condition in which someone demonstrates prodigious talent, while generally also living with a neurodevelopmental disorder, such as autism. The first mention of the condition occurred in the late 1700s, but it became more widely known following the movie Rain Man.
“It usually manifests as one or more areas of extraordinary memory or skill while other areas remain unaffected or underdeveloped,” says Dr. Ketan Parmar, a psychiatrist. “People with savant syndrome are typically highly creative in the areas of their expertise but may struggle to perform activities that require less specialized skills.”
The condition typically develops in young people or after someone experiences a traumatic brain injury. Autistic adults with savant syndrome may also display a cognitive and behavioral profile that includes:
- Heightened sensory sensitivity
- Obsessional behaviors
- Technical and/or spatial abilities
Savants might possess specific math, music, arts, calendar calculation, and memory recall talents. This might present as a person being able to quickly and accurately say what day of the week any specific date will be or hearing a complex musical composition once and recreating it.
The brain and savant syndrome
Researchers don’t know the exact cause of savant syndrome, but they have many theories.
“It has been suspected to involve the right hemisphere of the brain in certain savants compensating for some sort of a deficit within the left anterior temporal lobe,” says Dr. Zishan Khan, a psychiatrist with Mindpath Health.
According to Khan, three leading theories about the origins of savant syndrome are:
- The biological-developmental theory: It follows the idea that genetic and neurochemical damage to the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain contributes to the development of savant syndrome.
- The modularity of mind hypothesis: It posits that disruptions in behavioral functions lead to unusual forced reorganizations within individuals’ minds, which results in special talents.
- The cognitive theory: It presents the idea that deficits in executive function, abstract thinking, and highly developed and advanced procedural memory are what lead people to become savants
Savant syndrome and autism
Medical professionals and researchers often discuss savant syndrome in connection with autism due to its relative prevalence in people living with the condition. Some estimates range from one in ten to about one-third of people living with autism also experiencing savant syndrome to some degree.
Can you be a savant without autism?
One of the largest misconceptions about savant syndrome is that you can only have it if you’re also living with autism. However, as Khan explained, autism is commonly associated with the condition but is not a requirement.
Living with savant syndrome
Savant syndrome comes with an incredibly unique set of valuable opportunities and acute challenges.
Let’s start with the benefits. By default, experiencing savant syndrome means that a person possesses a unique and impressive skill, very remarkable in and of itself. Some of these talents are transferable and can bring the individual great success or joy. Many people living with savant syndrome “use their magnificent artistic skills for lucrative careers, selling their work and sharing their gifts with others around the world,” says Khan.
However, while savant syndrome can lead to incredible talents, it can also have a negative impact on some individuals. In some cases, a person with savant syndrome has “splinter skills” or talents that are remarkable but aren’t very practical day-to-day. “Some of these splinter skills are actual obsessive preoccupations that these individuals have with specific devices or everyday items,” explains Khan. These skills can include knowing how many bricks make up a wall or being able to recite a takeout menu from memory.
Managing savant syndrome
Regardless of the skill a person living with savant syndrome has, they may benefit from tailored support and education to navigate their abilities in a safe environment. People living with savant syndrome or any neurodiversity provide invaluable perspectives, insight, and knowledge across education, research, creative, and scientific endeavors.
“Savant syndrome is not a disease that needs to be treated or cured. Yes, many of these individuals have underlying disabilities or disorders that coexist and may need treatment, but savant syndrome in itself does not constitute a problematic disorder,” says Khan. “The best thing these individuals can experience is unconditional support and guidance from people that have their best interest in mind to help them further develop their skills and possibly use them to better themselves or others.”