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What is Savant Syndrome? Signs, Causes and Treatment

What is Savant Syndrome? Signs, Causes and Treatment

What do you think about the character Raymond Babbitt from the movie ‘Rain Man.’ Do you like him and want to know about savant syndrome? Or do you think people like him only exist in movies? 

What is Savant Syndrome

Indeed, the way Hollywood has portrayed the character is for entertainment purposes, but savant syndrome is real. However, it is a rare condition often diagnosed in those with developmental disorders like autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

The person possesses extraordinary skills or abilities in specific areas, such as music, art, mathematics, or memory. These skills are far beyond normal and often coexist with significant challenges in other aspects of daily functioning.

Studies show that 10% of people with autism have some sort of savant abilities, which are varied.  

What Causes Savant Syndrome?

The exact cause of savant syndrome is not fully understood. However, it’s believed to be related to atypical brain development responsible for processing and organizing information. It often occurs in individuals with neurodevelopmental disorders like autism but can also be associated with other conditions or brain injuries.

However, some studies show that savant syndrome is present at birth, suggesting it is genetic. 

What are the Signs and Symptoms of Savant Syndrome?

The signs and symptoms of savant syndrome can vary widely depending on the individual and their exceptional abilities. However, there are some common characteristics associated with this condition. One of the hallmark features is having exceptional skills in specific areas, such as:

1. Music

Expertise in playing different musical instruments or composing music. Leslie Lemke is a great musical savant.  

2. Art

Remarkable artistic abilities, with intricate details and precision. Stephen Wiltshire and Alonzo Clemons are the well-known artistic savant. 

3. Mathematics

Perform mathematical calculations without a calculator or computer. Daniel Tammet is a living example of an autistic savant. 

In addition to this, people with savant autism also illustrate the following abilities: 

4. Memory

They have amazing memory retention and can recall facts, details, and events. 

5. Intense Focus

Individuals with Savant Syndrome have intense concentration and focus on area of expertise when engaged in the activity.

6. Repetitive Behaviors

These individuals often engage in repetitive behaviors and have amazing skills such as drawing continuously, play musical instruments or recite numbers.

7. Difficulty with Social Interactions

People with savant syndrome even experience challenges when interacting with people in social settings. They usually fear talking to strangers and are never comfortable in an unknown setting. 

8. Narrow Range of Interests

Their interests and pursuits are often highly specialized and may be limited to their exceptional skill or a few related areas. Also they are sensitive to sensory stimuli, such as sounds, lights, or textures.

9. Difficulty with Everyday Activities

They may face challenges with activities of daily living that do not align with their exceptional abilities. In many cases, they have a significant contrast between their exceptional skill and other areas of cognitive functioning.

How Is Savant Syndrome Diagnosed?

Identifying savant syndrome requires a coordinated effort from professionals, clinicians, psychologists, educators, and specialists and its diagnosis often involves considering other neurodevelopmental conditions such as autism spectrum disorder.

The primary goal of diagnosing savant syndrome is to gain a comprehensive understanding of the individual’s unique strengths, challenges, and overall functioning.  Here are the key steps involved in it:

Firstly, an individual’s medical history that involves information about the prenatal, perinatal, and postnatal periods is collected. This helps understand if there has been any issue or the confusion might have influenced their development. 

After that, behavioral observation is done as this focuses on their remarkable skills and talents, as well as any challenges they face in their daily life. Moving forwards standardized tests are administered to evaluate various aspects of cognitive functioning, including intelligence, memory, and specific skills related to exceptional ability.

A thorough neuropsychological evaluation helps understand cognitive, sensory, and motor functions, providing insight into their overall neurological profile.

Recognizing these potential co-occurrence of conditions like autism spectrum disorder, gives a detailed assessment of these conditions and helps explore how their exceptional skills impact their daily functioning, encompassing activities of daily living, social interaction, and adaptability to their environment.

Finally, psychological and educational testing is conducted to determine strengths and weaknesses across various cognitive and academic domains.

Savant Syndrome Treatment:

Savant syndrome is not a disorder or disease that can be treated directly. Instead, treatment primarily focuses on addressing coexisting conditions, such as autism, that may accompany savant abilities.

Behavioral therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) are among the interventions used to support individuals with savant syndrome. These therapies aim to improve social skills, communication, and behavior management.

People with savant syndrome:

1. Kim Peek 

Kim Peek

The person who inspired the fictional Rain Man character. Kim, in reality, does not struggle with autism. He had a condition where the nerves that connect the brain hemispheres were missing. His memory abilities were extraordinary, and he could read two pages simultaneously. 

2. Leslie Lemke

Leslie Lemke

Born prematurely with cerebral palsy and brain damage. Leslie had exceptional musical talent. He was a child with a disability until age 16, but then he started playing piano without training and could play music just by listening to it once.

3. Stephen Wiltshire

Stephen Wiltshire

Popularly known as the Human Camera, Stephen has a photographic memory and can draw a landscape just by seeing it once. Like other autistic children, initially, Stephen couldn’t communicate verbally, but he used to express himself via drawing.

Savant Syndrome – Unleashing Potential

People with savant syndrome show exceptional characteristics and have exceptional abilities in specific domains, such as art, memory, arithmetic, musical abilities, and spatial skills.

These abilities often coexist with underlying conditions like autism, and while there is no direct treatment for Savant Syndrome itself, individuals can benefit from interventions focused on managing associated challenges. Behavioral therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) are commonly employed to enhance social skills and communication.

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