Getting to Know Savant Syndrome: Part II

autismWhat is Asperger’s Disorder?

Sometimes called “The little Professor” syndrome, most clinicians consider Asperger’s disorder to be persons who are at the high functioning end of the Pervasive Developmental Disorders and Autistic Disorders spectrum. Within a year of each other, independently and a continent apart, Dr. Leo Kanner described in 1943 what he called “Early Infantile Autism” in 11 of his patients, and Dr. Hans Asperger, in 1944, described what he called “Autistic Psychopathy” in four of his patients. Eventually Dr. Asperger described 200 such patients in his group but it was not until 1981 that the term Asperger’s Disorder was applied to such persons. Some of Asperger’s observations are described in greater detail elsewhere on this site at this link.

While Autistic Disorder and Asperger’s share many characteristics in common, there are some signs and symptoms more unique to Asperger’s such as often average to above average IQ although with scattered distribution; unusual interest and capability in natural sciences, complex calculations, computer programming or other areas of expertise which can be extensive and expansive; marked genetic roots with strong family histories of similar or related traits; early, rather than delayed, language and word recognition skills; poor motor coordination; and a generally higher level of social functioning than seen in Autistic persons but still with unusual, peculiar and naive social interactions. Characteristics shared between Asperger’s and Autistic Disorder include a 6:1 male:female sex ratio, prodigious memory, social withdrawal or uneasiness, intense interest in collecting things with strong attachments to those objects and obsession with sameness to name several.

Savant skills are very prominent in many Asperger’s individuals, certainly as high as in 10 percent of them, and it is often those highly specialized skills that bring Asperger’s persons to prominence. A December, 2001 article in Wired magazine, explored the apparent “explosion” of Autism and Asperger’s cases in the Silicon Valley of California, and raised questions about the continum of shared traits and strong family histories in persons with Asperger’s disorder and what TIME magazine, in a May 3, 2002 article called “for lack of a better word, Aspergery.” It is an interesting, continuing area of inquiry.

About Darold Treffert MD

Dr. Treffert completed both medical school and a psychiatric residency at the University of Wisconsin where he has been a Clinical Professor of Psychiatry. Following his training he developed the Child-Adolescent Unit at Winnebago Mental Health Institute. It was there he met his first autistic savant in 1962 and has been engaged in research on savant syndrome since that time, exploring the unique window into the brain, memory and creativity that this remarkable condition provides. Dr. Treffert has published two books on savant syndrome. Extraordinary People: Understanding Savant Syndrome has been published in ten languages. His most recent book Islands of Genius: The Bountiful Mind of the Autistic, Acquired and Sudden Savant was published in April, 2010. He has been a contributor to numerous articles in professional journals and has participated in many broadcast and documentary television programs including those in the U.S., Japan, Sweden, Korea, South Africa, Germany, England and many other countries. In his efforts to raise public understanding about autism and savant syndrome he has regularly appeared on programs such as 60 Minutes, Oprah, Today, CBS Evening News and many others. Dr. Treffert was a consultant to the award-winning movie Rain Man which made “autistic savant” household terms and he maintains a very internationally respected website at www.savantsyndrome.com hosted by the Wisconsin Medical Society which has kept him in touch with many persons around the world with savant syndrome and their families. Dr. Treffert has been a member of the medical staff of St. Agnes Hospital since 1963. He currently is a research consultant to Doll and Associates and the AABCC program working with Dr. Matt Doll and staff on some autism research projects.

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