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Savant Syndrome

A condition characterized by a combination of below normal intelligence and extraordinary mental abilities in one or a few narrow areas.

Persons who display savant syndrome have traditionally been called idiot savants, a term that many currently avoid because of its negative connotations. Alternate terms include retarded savant and autistic savant, the latter referring to the fact that savant syndrome is often associated with autism. It is difficult to arrive at an exact figure for the incidence of savant syndrome. A 1977 study found the incidence among the institutionalized mentally handicapped in the United States to be 0.06 percent of the population, or one in roughly 2,000. Most savants are males.

Savant skills occur in a number of different areas. Savants with musical abilities demonstrate an excellent ear for music from an early age, often including perfect pitch. They are able to reproduce melodies and even entire compositions with great accuracy and often show considerable performing talent, including both technical and interpretive skills. Others show unusual talent in the visual arts, which may include the ability to produce life-like reproductions at a very young age, when most children can turn out only primitive drawings. Some savants demonstrate a computer-like ability to perform difficult mathematical calculations at lightning speeds.

Perhaps the most common area where savants show extraordinary abilities is memory. They may memorize historical data, sports statistics, population figures, biographical information, or even telephone directories. One savant with uncommon musical abilities could also provide biographical information about the composer of almost any piece of music, as well as stating the key and opus of the piece. She could describe in detail every musical performance she had heard within a 20-year period and provide biographical information about every member of the local symphony orchestra. One particular type of memorization common to a large proportion of savants is calendar calculating, the ability to say what day of the week a particular date will fall (or has already fallen) on. Some savants can provide this type of information for periods covering hundreds of years.

Savants have been studied by researchers investigating such topics as the nature of human intelligence and the relative influence of heredity and environment.

Further Reading

Howe, Michael J. A. Fragments of Genius: The Strange Feats of Idiots Savants. London: Routledge, 1989.

Obler, L.K., and D. Fein, eds. The Exceptional Brain: Neuropsychology of Talent and Special Abilities. New York: Guilford Press, 1988.

Treffert, D.A. Extraordinary People. New York: Harper and Row, 1989.

Further Information

Autism Society of America (formerly National Society for Autistic Children). 8601 Georgia Ave., Suite 503, Silver Spring, MD 20910, (301) 565–0433.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaDiseases, Disorders & Mental Conditions