The Savant Academy supports the education of people with Savant Syndrome,
including musical, linguistic, mathematical, and artistic savants. The
organization also encourages scientific research into and awareness of Savant
Syndrome. Founded by David Mehnert in Los Angeles in 2003, The Savant Academy
is the first non-profit of its kind in the USA.
The initial focus of the Savant Academy is on helping blind musical savants, and in particular, on children with the Optic Nerve Hypoplasia (ONH) diagnosis. For unknown reasons, Optic Nerve Hypoplasia (ONH) disposes to musical ability and in certain cases to prodigious musical skills.
Following a hunch about Rex Lewis Clack’s form of blindness, Savant Academy founder David Mehnert searched for other children with ONH who might be helped by specialized teaching methods. In September 2003, he announced the discovery of three prodigious musical savants in Southern California. As of July 2004, David Mehnert has discovered 19 musical savants with Optic Nerve Hypoplasia (ONH), including six who show signs of prodigious memory and musical skill.
For a century and a half, the ‘mysterious triad’ of blindness, mental disability, and musical genius has recurred with surprising regularity in the literature on savants, given the relative rarity with which these traits occur separately. The musical and memory skills of such savants are quite profound; they cannot be explained as a mere compensation for being blind. For most of the 20th century, blindness in musical savants has generally been ascribed to retinopathy of prematurity (ROP). The discovery of a new diagnosis, accounting for multiple instances of the savant phenomenon, is significant. Equally important is the discovery of a possible means to ‘unlock’ the savant phenomenon in children with Optic Nerve Hypoplasia (ONH).
ONH blindness was virtually unknown a generation ago, with only 35 cases noted in the English language medical literature before 1970. Today it has become the leading single cause of congenital blindness in the industrialized world. Although better diagnostic techniques account for some of the increase, ONH rates appear to be rising for unknown environmental reasons.
Read more: Q&A: ONH, Blindness, and Savant Syndrome
What is a savant? A savant is someone with a mental/cognitive disability who, at the same time, demonstrates special skills, intelligence, or aptitudes. The correct medical term for this phenomenon is Savant Syndrome.At their most spectacular level, savants possess abilities that surpass non-disabled prodigies and geniuses. Savants may demonstrate, for example, an ability to recite pages of text on a single hearing, to multiply six-digit numbers in their head, or to memorize and perform any song played for them just once. The 1988 film Rain Man introduced the concept of an autistic savant to a wider audience. Such prodigious savants are extremely rare. Fewer than fifty such individuals are thought to be alive in the world today, and fewer than one hundred such people have been noted in more than a century of literature on the subject.
There are many different kinds of savants, and many levels of savant ability. Savant Syndrome should be regarded as a spectrum diagnosis, encompassing many levels of competence. No one has done more for the field than Darold Treffert M.D., author of Extraordinary People: Understanding Savant Syndrome (New York: Harper & Row, 1989) and a clinical professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Dr. Treffert has spent three decades researching savants. His very readable Savant Syndrome website offers the most comprehensive body of knowledge currently available on the subject.
Despite many advances in recent years, medical science has not yet offered a comprehensive or convincing explanation for why savant abilities exist. No model of brain function, including memory, will be complete until it can account for, and fully incorporate, the rare but spectacular condition of Savant Syndrome, writes Dr. Treffert. There is no academic faculty or facility anywhere dedicated to the support and understanding of real-life savants. It is hoped that the Savant Academy will go some way toward remedying this situation.
Specialized teaching techniques unlock hidden savant skills. It has been repeatedly demonstrated that when savant abilities exist, secondary (and seemingly unrelated) developmental advantages occur when the savant talent itself is encouraged and trained. We owe it to these extraordinary people to give them the education they need.
Read more: Common Myths About Savants
Whether or not a child has special educational needs, a supportive home environment is critical in the eventual development of musical talent. A musical “bath” is particularly important during the first two years of life. Music should be in the background, in the car and in the nursery. An infant’s vocal and rhythmic explorations should be encouraged and rewarded from the beginning.
At an early age, the ear is far more sensitive to fine nuances of tuning and rhythm. While formal lessons may be put off for years, it is important to allow a child to experiment on a keyboard early on, and to encourage such play at the appropriate time. We live in a special technological age. Ten years ago, musical toys and children's keyboards sounded like out-of-tune cell phones. Today, even modestly-priced keyboards sound like sampled concert grand pianos. Early exposure to such accurately tuned electronic instruments is critical in making valuable neurological connections. These connections may prove to be extremely helpful in later life in all sorts of extra-musical capacities.
Put a little differently: if you have to ask whether that old upright piano in the basement or garage is out of tune, stop asking the question. It's DEFINITELY out of tune! Tune the piano, and better yet, get an inexpensive electronic keyboard as well; there’s a recommendation on the What are Savants Listening To? section of this site. No matter how beautiful it may appear to the eye, an out-of-tune piano is of little use to a young ear.
Read More: What are Savants Listening To?
Read More: What is Perfect Pitch (and Why Is It Important)?
Read More: The Story Behind The Savant Academy.