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What is an Autistic Savant?

Jacob Queen
Jacob Queen

An autistic savant is a person who suffers from autism, but compensates for the condition by exhibiting some kind of extremely potent cognitive talent. For example, the person may be able to do very complex math without the aid of a calculator, or he may have the ability to perform music at a high level without training. People with autism aren’t generally the only people with savant abilities, but it is more common among people with autism. The reasons for autistic savant abilities are unknown among scientists, although there are some theories.

Many scientists think that autistic savant talents come from a specialized capacity for memory. Many savants are able to recall very tiny details with very little difficulty. Others can mimic things after only being exposed to them for a short time. This increased memory capacity doesn’t explain all savant abilities, but it seems to be involved in many of them.

Doctor taking notes
Doctor taking notes

One of the more common autistic savant talents is in the area of complex mathematics. For example, some autistic savants can answer questions involving massive math calculations within seconds. In many cases, these talents may be somewhat limited. For example, the individual may only be skilled in one area of math, such as multiplication or division.

Other common areas for savant skill include various artistic pursuits, including painting and playing music. There are savants who have shown the ability to mimic other paintings and painting styles. Some also seem to have a capacity to paint very detailed creations fully from memory. The musical savant skills generally work the same way and may involve the ability to replicate something perfectly on an instrument after hearing it only once.

Generally speaking, a common misconception exists that all people with autism also have savant abilities. This is untrue. In fact, most scientists estimate that only about 10 percent of autistic people have any kind of savant skill. That is still much higher than the general population and also higher than other people with mental disabilities.

The reasons for autistic savant talents are disputed among scientists. Some theorize that people with autism may have a greater capacity for focusing on things. Others say that they have access to parts of the brain that aren’t available to most people. Many scientists believe that gaining an understanding of savant abilities may eventually lead to a better overall understanding of how the human brain works, so there is generally a lot of research into the subject.

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      Doctor taking notes