I met my first savant in 1962 when I developed a Children’s Unit at Winnebago Mental Health Institute. This jarring juxtaposition of ability and disability in the same person intrigued me then, and intrigues me still. The savant best known to the Fond du Lac area is Leslie Lemke who many remember from the story of May and her foster son Leslie carried throughout the country on 60 Minutes, That’s Incredible and Oprah and so many other programs through the years. It was Leslie’s concert in Fond du Lac in 1980 that brought him to national and international attention. Walter Cronkite used that as his Christmas story that year. Leslie is alive and well in Arpin, Wisconsin, playing as vigorously and marvelously as ever. His “and sings my soul” concert at Marian University in April, 2011 was just as spectacular and moving as that 1980 concert that started it all.
Let me explain what we do know about savant syndrome today.
Savant syndrome is a rare but remarkable condition in which persons with some underlying developmental disability or other brain trauma or disorder have some extraordinary special abilities—“islands of genius”—which stand in stark contrast to overall limitations. Typically these special abilities are in music, art, mathematics or mechanical/visual-spatial areas. Whatever the special skill it is always combined with massive memory.
Sometimes, but not always, the underlying disability is autism. In fact about one in ten persons with autism does have savant skills. The incidence of savant syndrome in other underlying disabilities is about 1:1400 This special giftedness is on a spectrum ranging from ‘splinter skill’ level (memorization of license plates, sports trivia, birthdays, calendar calculating etc.); to “talented” level where a single skill is conspicuous, elevated and advanced; to “prodigious” level where if no disability were present the person would be classified as prodigy or genius. This is a very high threshold level.
Typically the savant skills surface in early childhood, sometimes exploding on the scene to everyone’s astonishment. But in other instances, called “acquired savant” they emerge unexpectedly in adolescents or adults following head injury or other brain disorders. This circumstance hints at buried potential—a little Rain Man– within us all.
Savant syndrome occurs approximately four times more frequently in males than females as does the incidence of autism itself. Savant syndrome was first described in London in 1887 by Dr. J. Langdon Down. After that there were some cases reported in countries throughout the world, but it was the movie Rain Man, in 1989, that brought savant syndrome to real international attention and made the term ‘autistic savant’ a household term.
Savant skills are very extraordinary, unusual and capture much attention. But they are not frivolous and deserve more than a quizzical, passing glance. They are the language of the savant and the way he or she communicates their potential within. By developing, encouraging and “training the talent” those special skills can be used to bring forth better language, social and daily living skills as a move toward greater independence.
Critical to the discovery, nurturing and appreciation of the special savant skills are the families of these special people. The patience, belief and love these families demonstrate so vividly are vital ingredients to growth and progress. They serve as role models to the teachers, therapists and caregivers who then also contribute to that growth and progress.
Savant syndrome provides a unique window into the brain for the study not only of brain structure, savant skills and memory, but it also provides unique glimpses into intelligence, learning and creativity. By further studying persons with savant syndrome we can advance our understanding of both brain function and human potential further along than ever before.