What is a Savant?

savant definition

A savant is a person who is exceptionally skilled in an area like math or music.  Historically, the terms ‘idiot savant’ or ‘autistic savant‘ were used to describe individuals on the autism spectrum with these extraordinary talents.  These terms are no longer deemed politically correct.  Individuals with a developmental disability, like autism, who exhibit these unusual talents may be diagnosed with savant syndrome.  We discuss the history of the term along with the evolution of people first language.  We also take a deeper dive into savant syndrome and introduce several of the most well-known savants of the modern age.

Related resource: Top 20 Online Applied Behavior Analysis Bachelor’s Degree and BCaBA Coursework Programs

Characteristics of Autism

Autism is a spectrum. Some people with the diagnosis have mild symptoms across a few categories.  Others have one or more areas of severe symptoms. Some of the characteristics of autism include:

  • difficulty with communications
  • trouble relating to others
  • excessive focus on a narrow topic of interest
  • uneven cognitive skills

Not all people with autism will exhibit all of these characteristics. For some people with autism, one of their symptoms can stand out more from the others.

Who is a savant?  Sometimes, an individual with autism has an extraordinary ability that doesn’t seem to align with their other symptoms.  These individuals were historically referred to as autistic savants.  There are no definitive numbers regarding the prevalence of savant skills in the autistic population.  Some research points to figures greater than 1 in 10 while other research leans toward 1 in 200.

Definition of “Savant”

What is a savant?  A “savant” means a sage or learned person. It comes from the French word “savoir,” which means “to know.” There is an old expression, “idiot savant,” that is both imprecise and pejorative. The term “autistic savant” was used to replace it. When people use the term “autistic savant,” they are referring to a person with autism who has a savant skill (or savant skills) in a very particular cognitive area. For example, the term used to describe a person with autism who could hear one of Beethoven’s symphonies one time and be able to play it from memory with no music and no training. It was also used to describe a person with immense mathematical abilities, who could do extremely complicated calculations in their head in a quick manner.

People-first Language

Since the 2000s, there has been a turn to using people-first language. Instead of referring to the disability, disorder or disease, the person is described first. This is because a person is much more than their condition, disorder or disease. Some descriptors have also fallen into disfavor because of their disparaging qualities. For example, the term “crippled” used to be used for people who were unable to walk without assistance or at all.

Today, there is a clear emphasis on people-first language. For example, instead of “autistic boy,” the person-first language would be “boy with autism.” This tells others that the boy is more than his diagnosis.

Understanding people-first language is essential to success in an area of work such as psychology, education or medicine. While some people think that others are “too sensitive” or “snowflakes” when it comes to labels, a social change involving not putting up with insults or derogatory labels has taken place over recent years. A person who plans to work with people who have autism should have knowledge of the term savant the proper way to refer to this remarkable condition.

What is Savant Syndrome?

savant syndrome

According to the United States National Library of Medicine, mental health and medical professionals have defined a condition called “savant syndrome.” This definition replaces some of the older terminology that is now widely regarded as offensive and derogatory to people, including the term idiot savant. Savant syndrome is defined as a condition in which a person has island of genius that is in marked contrast to their other cognitive skills or abilities.

Savant syndrome is not exclusive to individuals with an autistic disorder.  Savant abilities may present in individuals with other developmental or intellectual disabilities.  We also know that savant syndrome occurs in individuals that have experienced a traumatic brain injury.  Most of the time, savant skills become evident during childhood, but they can occur at any time, especially in the instance of a traumatic brain injury.

What Are Savant Skills?  

Savant skills exist in a variety of areas.  In fact, sometimes multiple skills can occur in the same individual.  Most talented savants demonstrate extraordinary skills in areas like:

  • Art
  • Music
  • Math
  • Calendar calculation
  • Memory recall

Artistic savants have extraordinary artistic talent, often with little to no training.  They have the ability to remember visual detail.  Some draw from memory while others demonstrate a unique style or approach to their craft.

A study by Treffert in 1989 speculated that there are approximately 100 known prodigious savants in the last century.  Just 12 to 15 of those are alive today.  Their musical ability is incredible, and often takes shape before they reach six years of age.

Mathematical savants can perform mathematical calculations at breathtaking speeds and solve complex equations in ways we could never imagine.  Some report that they “experience numbers” as a result of a heightened sensory perception.

Calendar calculation is an obscure skill in the general population, but one of the most common savant skills.  A calendar savant is someone who can tell you the day of the week that corresponds to the date without the use of any external aid.

Some savants have exceptional memory.  These savants have extraordinary recollection of facts, locations, and history beyond the scope of what you or I could relay.

What Causes Savant Syndrome?

There is no definitive explanation for why some individuals possess savant skills and others do not.  There is some research that indicates savants may have a unique cognitive and behavioral profile that is different from other individuals with autism or intellectual disability.  These include:

  • A different approach to task learning
  • Obsessional behaviors
  • Heightened sensory sensitivity
  • Technical/spatial abilities
  • Systemizing

A study by Bolte and Poustka in 2004 showed that savants and other autistic individuals are comparable in terms of standard intelligence.  So, what causes an individual to develop a savant ability?

Some researchers suggest the savant syndrome is caused by a change in a specific gene or genes.  Others suggest it could be caused by one side of the brain compensating for damage or injury to the other.  Unfortunately, there is no definitive cause of savant syndrome.

Notable Savants

Since savant skills are so rare and remarkable, individuals who portray these unique abilities are usually well known.  We showcase some of the most unique and best-known individuals with savant syndrome.

Derek Amato

Sometimes savant syndrome happens outside the realm of a disability.  Derek Amato is a musical savant.  He is not autistic and was not born with any sort of disability.  In 2006, Derek dove into a shallow swimming pool and suffered a major concussion.  When he awoke, he discovered he could play the piano.  Although Derek couldn’t read music, he was incredible at improv.  Derek is considered a sudden savant.  His savant skill came about suddenly after a traumatic injury.

Gregory Blackstock

Gregory Blackstock has a savant ability in his extraordinary memory.  He also has an obsessive interest in both taxonomies and inventories.  He focuses on differences and similarities.  Blackstock was diagnosed as an autistic savant after spending time with specialists and residing in an institution.  Considered an artistic savant in today’s terminology, Blackstone is a brilliant artist who makes sense of life through his artistic talent.

Lawrence Kim Peek

Peek is the inspiration for the character of Raymond Babbitt in the movie Rain Man.  Peek had an exceptional memory despite being born with extensive brain damage.  He could recall the contents of over 12,000 books according to an article published in the New York Times.  A study concluded that Peek likely had FG syndrome which causes macrocephaly and hypotonia.

Rex Lewis-Clark

Rex Lewis-Clark is best known for his incredible musical ability.  Lewis-Clark was born blind and is on the autism spectrum.  When he was just seven years old, he was labeled as a “prodigious musical savant.”  He performs around the world, sharing his music in a motivational/inspirational format.

What is the Treatment for Savant Syndrome?

There isn’t any treatment for savant syndrome.  In fact, it isn’t even an actual diagnosis in the DSM-V.  There aren’t any drawbacks to having savant syndrome.  If there are symptoms that need to be treated, they are usually from the underlying disorder that accompanies this unique phenomenon.