AUTISM AND SAVANT SYNDROME
AUTISM AND SAVANT SYNDROME
SURAL SHAHA little boy quietly sits in front of a piano, with his fingers poised over the bright white keys. His teacher, seated beside him on the bench, plays a complicated series of chords, filling the air with a beautiful melody. After a single hearing, the boy begins to play, perfectly reproducing the song he has just heard. As the last notes fade away, the boy sits still for a moment and then begins to rock gently back and forth, only stopping once the music begins again....
A genius. A prodigy. One might label this child as such after witnessing this type of performance, were it not for the little nuances of the situation: the rocking, the cold, unemotional expression on the boy's face, and his lack of response to the voices around him. Instead, this boy is diagnosed with Savant Syndrome, a disorder in which individuals with neurological developmental delays in socialization and communication (3) possess "astonishing islands of brilliance that stand in stark, markedly incongruous contrast to the over-all handicap" (6). From absolute pitch and chess playing skill to the card-counting talent popularized by Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, savants may be developmentally delayed, but certainly posses a genius of sorts that is almost unmatchable. In this respect, I am fascinated by the biological and societal origins and significance of the existence of individuals with an IQ well below average who are capable of performing tasks about which some geniuses could only dream. The implications of these individuals are huge in terms of genetics, the nature of intelligence and the varying processes of thought present within humanity. I find that it is the presence of a "weakness" such as autism and its developmental delays which allows for the stroke of genius present in savants. The idea that the brain has plans of its own which is does not communicate to the I-function is certainly an amazing concept in its scope.
These developmental delays are classified as pervasive developmental disorders (PDD). Autism is considered to be the most significant of these PDD's. It is a neurological disorder in which affected individuals have impaired social interaction, problems with verbal and nonverbal communication, and unusual or severely limited activities and interests (2). Often, autistic people have specific routines from which they refuse to deviate, as well as restricted patterns or interests that are considered to be abnormal in their intensity and focus. These habits, like autism itself, vary over a wide range, and may include hair twirling and rocking in mild cases to self-injurious behavior such as head-banging in more severe cases. Autistic individuals have difficulty making friends and sustaining conversations, often fail to respond to stimuli, including their own names, and usually are retarded in their language development. For these reasons, they are often considered to be aloof and unemotional (2). Their intelligence quotients average at approximately 50, as compared to the average of 100.
The occurrence of "these [autistic savants] comets of genius across the sky of man's mental universe" has been noted for centuries, but were simply noted by the French as "idiot savants," or "wise fools" (10). Its etiology can be either congenital or the result of disease or injury to the central nervous system (CNS). The syndrome is six times as likely to occur in men as women (6). In recent years, the neurobiology of Savant Syndrome has become a topic of interest. As Dr. Darold Treffert notes, "The significance of the savant syndrome lies in our inability to explain it. The savants stand as a clear reminder of our ignorance about ourselves, especially how our brains function" (6). Through exploration of the structures of the autistic brain as well as imaging of the activity of the savant brain, scientists have begun to recognize the patterns responsible for this syndrome by which ten percent of the autistic community, including individuals with IQ's below average, are capable of tasks only 100 others (prodigal savants) can perform (7).
The true cause of autism is not currently known, but several theories exist which link the disorder to genetic and environmental factors. Abnormalities have been found in the brains of autistics in comparison to those of non-autistic individuals, such as hypoplasia, where the VII and VI lobules of the cerebellum are significantly reduced in size (4). Dr. Eric Courchesne has presented a theory in which these smaller lobes are associated with the inability to shift attention in a timely manner. In terms of autism, this relationship is significant as the information lost during this delayed shift could result in continued confusion throughout new situations. This reduction is thought to be the result of environmental or genetic conditions in utero. The disease is generally diagnosed within the first three years of life (4).
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) has shown several other neurological differences in the autistic brain. The limbic system, which includes the hippocampus and amygdala, relays information throughout the brain while simultaneously correlating emotion to it. The former is associated with memory, while the latter is linked to emotion and aggression (5). These neural structures also contain nerve cells that are immature and have not migrated to their proper locations in the brain. They are therefore incapable of functioning correctly, causing the unresponsive, emotionless expressions often associated with autism, as well as the stereotypical aversion to change (1). A loss of Purkinje cells and their synaptic connections to neurons in the cerebellum have been noted, as well. The primary function of the cerebellum is related to coordination of motor functions and position of limbs in space. Therefore, the elimination of cells aiding in the connection between it and the cognitive processing centers of the brain could impede several aspects of the motor function (5). These developmental problems are thought to be the result of genetic defects during the end stages of brain differentiation, based on animal and twin studies (1).
In terms of Savant Syndrome, these findings are very significant. The inability of autistic individuals to alter the focus of their attention is certainly also related to their ability to selectively direct all of their attention onto one activity. As savant abilities tend to be related to the five primary senses (visual, auditory, olfactory, tactile, and taste), it can be hypothesized that these senses are developed in the right cerebral hemisphere at the expense of the left cerebral hemisphere. In a sense, the obsession with a certain sense is a manifestation of loss of skills in the left brain, where these talents become a form of self-expression. The pattern of brain lateralization in autism shows a dependence on the right brain (10) where the special skills are almost always nonsymbolic and directly perceived, as opposed to left brain skills, which include language and are sequential and logical (6). Recent studies have shown that the most likely cause of Savant Syndrome is damage to the left CNS and higher memory structures, such that the right brain and lower ("habit") memory structures must compensate (9). If this CNS damage is prenatal, then there is often an associated release of testosterone, which is neurotoxic particularly to the left brain, as it takes longer to develop than the right brain. This finding supports the raised likelihood of males suffering from Savant Syndrome compared to females (6).
In particular, all forms of Savant Syndrome are associated with a phenomenal memory, which aids in the recognition of patterns in everything from musical rhythms to calendar counting. Lengthy passages and minute details can be recalled after only being exposed once to the work or route, often with a sensitivity to detail that reaches levels of artistry. The cause of this increased memory is certainly a point of interest, considering the role of the hippocampus in autism. The fact still remains that even with a better memory, most humans would still be incapable of performing the types of tasks that autistic savants do naturally. The reason for this is related to the way by which we perceive the world. For example, when an image falls on the retina, much of the information is screened out, as we learned in class. Before this happens, however, all sorts of details are identified by various parts of the brain in ways that are eventually reconciled to assemble patterns. In savants, this reconciliation does not occur in the same way, and thus "see the picture in fantastically detailed components, like individual pixels in a photograph" (8).
The implications of the above statement are enormous. If the speed of reconciliation is the largest issue, then it follows that within every human, the possibility of savant abilities is present. It has been suggested that as babies, all humans possess savant abilities, as can be seen in the rapid language acquisition at that age as well as the fact that absolute pitch and eidetic memory are much more present in children. Corresponding image studies, which show that newborns are neurologically limited to parts of the brain that eventually become a part of the unconscious, support this idea, as well (8). The theory is further supported by the fact that autistic children often lose their abilities once their social interactions improve, much as children's savant skills deteriorate once they obtain a strong command of language.
The second significant implication of the universal potential for savant skills is that it confirms our theory that there is much more in the universe than what "we" as non-autistic human beings perceive. Patterns exist that are unrecognizable to the unimpaired mind, and there is information that we are not aware of in terms of our I-functions that may actually be of some use, even if that use is simply to improve our creativity as a species. Those affected by Savant Syndrome have included musicians, artists, and mechanics that most likely never would have developed their genius without the disorder.
It is also interesting to note that, as our brains make up for "blindspots," the savant mind does not do so, or at least not in the same way. Where we may hear a three note chord, they might be able to identify a six note chord. This idea is amazing, as it means that evolution could have taken us down a very different path, and that there are characteristics out there that easily could have worked their way into our gene pool, but that with any "improvements," consequences such as autism are possible. In terms of evolution, I was also intrigued by the fact that the brain always finds a way to express itself. In the case of savants, where language capabilities are reduced, other forms of expression are developed, as the right brain compensates for the left brain. Following along with discussions concerning blindspots, it is certainly awe-inspiring how many support systems the brain has as a means of protecting itself. Though it is a slightly disturbing notion that the brain acts in ways that we cannot control or even truly be aware of, there is comfort in knowing that the brain strongly attempts to compensate for its weaknesses.
In the case of the little pianist, the essence of Savant Syndrome and autism becomes very clear. While in any other situation, the boy's skill would be praised as the mark of prodigal genius, in this case it is thought of with little but sadness and fascination. After all, were it not for the presence of developmental displays within his brain, the talent would more than likely never have touched his life on the conscious level. In a sense, the unrealized potential here is much less tragic that the tinge of genius which touches the lives of the autistic savant.
WWW Sources1)The Neurobiology of Infantile Autism
Comments made prior to 2007
To understand autism, we first need to have a clear operating definition of what it is. Most of the times, it is defined in terms of the triad of impairments. This is a very negative description which often adds distress to parents whose children have been diagnosed as having autistic spectrum disorder. However, I would define it as a neurodevelopmental spectrum syndrome of constitutional origin, whose onset is usually around the first three years of birth, causing empathizing deficits that result in a triad of impairments in communication, social interaction and imagination, but may, on the other hand, display a strong systemizing drive that may account for a distinct triad of strengths in good attention to detail, deep narrow interest, and innate islets of ability, seen in those whom we called the "savants" ... Noel K.H. Chia, 27 June 2006
I have a question. The only information that I have is from a 60 minutes presentation and reading one article. But, I did have a thought. If one was to assign numbers to all the different parts of the brain, both normal and autistic, and I mean everything from chemicals, to structures, to processes... would a savant be able to decipher and come up with the answer themselves? I am sure someone has thought of this previously, but I was interested in your response ... Michelle, 13 March 2007
I read part of the story about the boy that heard the notes of a melody and then immiediately played the notes from memory. Then I noticed the following statement that talked about how the boy started rocking back and forth.
I believe that the boy started to rock back and forth, because deep down he probably knew that he was at a very rare level of intelligence.
I have a theory that autism might have a very strong connection to eidetic memory.
Through my research thus far, there seems to be two parts to eidetic memory. Photographic memory-which retains images that are listed on paper or in a visual form such as a computer or television. Eidetic sound memory-which retains the normal voice pitch or melodious sounds of people or animals.
I believe that if people look at how blind people learn to listen to sounds they will begin to see a very an eidetic process emerge. Because the same thesis could also be applied to deaf people that learn to memorize images.
I believe that there are actually different levels of eidetic memory to be considered.
Progressive Level One: People born with photographic memory that might possibly even remember being born due to the ability to retain images. These people might even have a partial eidetic ability to remember sounds from that same event and onward into their life.
Progressive Level Two: People born with eidetic sound memory that enables them to remember sounds from the womb and increasingly thereafter. These people might possibly remember images from their own birth as well.
Level Three: People who go deaf or blind and have the ability to recall images or sounds once they go through a learning process ... Reader on the web, 9 April 2007
i am the parent of a male autistic / savant artist . he was born in 1968 when autism was a virtually "unknown subject".
it may be of interest to some person studying in this field to have the information and history (so far) of our experiences which we have kept well documented . he has gone from a total nightmare to a self sufficent ,fairly successful person in his own right. living by himself , communicating , and painting etc. ... John Rodger, 25 May 2007