Acquired Savant Syndrome: Accessing our ‘inner savant’

Dr. TreffertAbout one in ten persons with autism is a savant.  Savant syndrome is a remarkable condition in which extraordinary musical, artistic or mathematical skills exist side by side with autism or other serious mental disability.    It raises questions about how often dormant potential goes undiscovered in persons with handicaps.  But recent cases of ‘acquired savant syndrome’ raise intriguing questions as to whether an ‘inner savant—a little Rain Man perhaps—might exist within us all.

Consider these cases:  A ten year old boy is knocked unconscious by a baseball.  Following that brain trauma he suddenly can perform calendar calculations and develops stunning autobiographical memory from that day forward.  An elderly women who never painted before becomes a prodigious artist as a dementia process proceeds.  A 51 year old builder, who had never shown an interest or skills in art, abruptly becomes a poet, painter and sculptor following a stroke he miraculously survived.  An orthopedic surgeon survives a lightning strike, after which a preoccupation with classical music, never present earlier, emerges leading to composing his own sonata’s and now balancing his time between performing music publicly and practicing medicine..  A middle-aged businessman, with no prior interest or ability in either drawing or mathematics,  has a severe concussion after which he sees images, which, when he draws them out meticulously depict complex fractals which he now understands and expands upon.

I met my first savant in 1962 when I developed a Children’s Unit at Winnebago Mental Health Institute.  Until 1986 most of the savants I encountered were ‘congenital’ savants where special skills emerged on the scene, sometimes explosively, in childhood most of the time in children with autism.  But in May, 1986 I met my first “acquired savants”– ordinary children or adults who, after some head injury, stroke or other brain disease suddenly show savant skills, sometimes at an extraordinary levels, where no such interest or ability existed pre-CNS incident.

That first acquired savant was Alonzo Clemons.

According to his mother, Alonzo was a normal baby who seemed to learn very quickly.  At about age 3 Alonzo had a fall which produced  a brain injury that slowed his development precipitously and left him with serious cognitive disability including limited vocabulary and speech.  After that, however, a constant interest and spectacular ability to sculpt, using whatever materials were handy, including shortening, emerged.  He had a special interest in animals and could look at a two dimensional picture of an animal in a magazine and then magically sculpt a three-dimensional perfect replica of that animal in less than half an hour.  With visits to a local zoo his ability to sculpt any animal, each muscle and tendon exactly as first seen, after only a single glance, accelerated and continues to this day.    His most magnificent work was one I viewed at the Denver exhibit, a life-size Three Frolicking Foals.

Since that time I have encountered other acquired savamts such as those described briefly above.  Some of those cases, and the mechanism of acquired savant syndrome are described in more detail in the August, 2014  issue of Scientific American in an article titled “Accidental Genius”.   Acquired savant syndrome is still a rare phenomenon however.  On a world-wide registry of savants that I assembled in 2010, there are 319 individuals; 30 of those, or approximately 10% are acquired savants.

The acquired savant raises questions about dormant potential, perhaps, within us all.  The challenge is how to tap that hidden ability without head injury or other CNS catastrophe and research is focused on that effort.  Some have suggested a technical approach which uses brain stimulation using tiny currents directed at certain brain regions.  Others are exploring meditation and other ways of accessing some relatively unused brain areas.  Still others are using deliberate cognitive approaches toward using more right brain skills often subservient to relative left hemisphere domination.  These efforts are supported now by newer imaging techniques which allow examination of the brain at work rather than just static imagery.

The acquired savant provides irrefutable evidence of the plasticity of the central nervous system which gives optimism and hope for patients after a head injury or post-stroke, for example and massive strides are being made in central nervous system rehabilitation efforts.  But the acquired savant goes beyond that to suggest that a reservoir of untapped brain potential—a little Rain Man perhaps– resides within us all.  The challenge now is to tap into that ‘inner savant’ as conveniently, but non-intrusively, as possible and exploration of such efforts is underway.   It is a very exciting time.  Stay tuned.

For more information access www.savantsyndrome.com  a web site maintained by the Wisconsin Medical Society or read the August, 2014 issue of Scientific American which contains the article “Accidental Genius” by Dr. Treffert

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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