Common Myths About Savants
The first encounter with a savant is often very charged. Perhaps because the gift is so
extraordinary, and so at odds with assumptions about the disability itself, it can
sometimes seem as if the talent is being revealed, for the very first time, to a viewer's eyes.
Savants do not enjoy what they do.
Savants would never develop their skills and talents if they didn't enjoy themselves.
Though some savants appear to perform their abilities in a distant or mechanical manner,
this apparent sense of detachment is better understood in light of a particular disability
or cognitive impairment, rather than as a measure of the savant's level of enthusiasm.
Savants have a natural gift, so they do not need to practice.
Most savants are always practicing their special skills, though some savants, in particular
mathematical and ‘calendar calculating’ savants, appear to perform calculations without any
conscious attention. It is clear, however, that savant aptitudes do not translate into
wondrous talents without reinforcement, encouragement, and repetition over the course of
countless hours. In fact, in many cases it takes hundreds of hours of practice for the
talent to emerge in the first place. In adults, prodigious savant talents have usually
been honed over the course of a lifetime.
Savants teach themselves, so they don't need lessons.
Savants are strongly self-motivated, but most can benefit from instruction and guidance.
For example, it is not unusual for a young musical savant to approach a piano with fists
or karate chops, or to develop elaborate self-schooled techniques that avoid the use of
the thumb. Especially in the case of music, it is important that savants receive early
and specialized technical guidance so that they do not develop idiosyncratic techniques
which hamper them later in life.
Savant talents usually appear spontaneously, without warning.
is a 16-year-old blind and autistic musical savant pianist
originally from Irmo, South Carolina (and currently living on Long Island).
Born 3 1/2 months premature and weighing just over a pound, Brittany was given
little chance of survival at birth. She is beginning to play concerts on the
East Coast, and currently numbers more than 10,000 pieces in her repertoire
(including hundreds of original compositions). Brittany, who was featured on
August 5, 2005 on Dateline NBC,
began studying at age 10 with Dr. Scott Price of the University of South Carolina.
Although savants often take an immediate interest in their instrument or special skill,
their fully-formed talents do not necessarily blossom overnight, contrary to the Hollywood
notion of a savant. Musical progress is often non-linear. Some aspects of the talent
may emerge before others (such as memory or technical ability), although, when the skills
come together, there is a quantum leap in overall ability. Once that happens, savant
talents can progress quite rapidly.
Savants often lose their special ability as they are encouraged along more normal
lines of socialization, particularly as they learn language.
Nadia was an autistic savant artist who, by her sixth year, demonstrated
an astonishing ability to draw in what was described as Renaissance-style
perspective. Nadia was the subject of a widely-quoted 1977 book by British psychologist
Lorna Selfe. As Nadia gained communicative speech later in childhood, she apparently
lost her artistic talent. Selfe suggested a trade-off between language and artistic
skills: that as language skills were refined, special artistic skills waned or disappeared.
In fact, Nadia's loss of interest in drawing came in a shift in her care environment,
and mostly in the wake of her mother's death. It is possible that Nadia simply lost her main
source of encouragement, and that her artistic gift withered for a lack of praise and reinforcement.
Fortunately, such trade-offs are rare. Savant skills are a very useful conduit toward
normalization in and of themselves, and when they exist, can be helpful in developing many
other skills that allow the savant to communicate with the larger world.
Musical savants play back what they hear, note for note.
Prodigious musical savants are not tape recorders, player pianos,
or computer punch card readers. Though most non-musicians simply can't recognize
the subtleties, after hearing a piece for the first time, it is unusual for a savant to play
it back in a literal note-for-note manner.
Savants grasp and retain the underlying fabric of a piece of music, and are quite adept
at filling in the pieces and chords in ways that fit their hands, physical technique, and skill
level. This is, in fact, one of their greatest strengths. Unless a savant has been specifically
asked to replicate a piece exactly, perhaps as an exercise, savants are generally content to do
their own thing. In fact, it's what most of them prefer to do!
Savants are not creative.
Many savants love to improvise, and in fact prefer the stimulation of improvising
to playing set pieces.
The best savant jazz musician in the USA is Tony DeBlois, who plays 18 instruments in
addition to the piano. Now 29 years old, Tony's story inspired the 1999 television
movie, Journey of the Heart. Unfortunately, Journey of the Heart
introduced a number of myths about savants, including the notion that creativity is a
struggle for those with Savant Syndrome. In fact, many savants show a high level of
creative ability from an early age.
For a period of time, Tony was regarded as the only savant in the world who was
proficient at jazz; today, thanks to specialized training, there are several
savants who are regarded as first-rate jazz improvisers. Janice DeBlois, Tony's
mother, fought from an early age for teaching and funding for her son's gift.
She tells people that her son has a triple handicap: he is blind, autistic, and
has Savant Syndrome. Having Savant Syndrome is like having a whole other
special need, she explains. After attending Perkins School for the Blind,
Tony DeBlois graduated magna cum laude from the Berklee School of Music.
He performs frequently in the Boston area and is in demand for appearances all
over the world.
Savants would continue to do what they do, regardless of any encouragement. They don't need any help.
Like everyone, savants like to be rewarded and praised for what they do well. Savants
require an appropriate household environment, strong parental or familial encouragement,
and the help of a dedicated teacher or teachers to help realize their talents.
Savants are rare.
This one is true. Indeed, prodigious savants are extremely rare, with fewer than
one hundred noted in more than a century of literature on the subject. (A prodigious
savant is someone whose skill level would qualify him or her as a prodigy,
or exceptional talent, even in the absence of a cognitive disability.) Fewer than fifty
or so such individuals are believed to be alive in the world today. About half of them
are prodigious musical savants.
However, savant skills are best understood as part of a broad spectrum. Some 10%
of autistic people are known to have some area of competence which is in contrast
to their overall disability; this is termed a ‘splinter’ savant skill. When these
‘splinter’ skills are more organized and coherent, it is appropriate to call the
people who possess them ‘talented savants,’ according to a definition proposed by
Darold Treffert M.D. and which is now gaining wide acceptance. Thousands of
‘talented savants’ are alive in the world today.
Savants are wonderful exceptions and very entertaining, but they have nothing to teach science.
There are many examples in the history of science of anomalies that were
originally ignored as being trivial
but later turned out to be of fundamental
importance, writes neurologist V. S. Ramachandran (with Sandra Blakeslee) in
the now-classic 1998 book, Phantoms
in the Brain. While acknowledging that some anomalies are red herrings,
Ramachandran notes that we must not ignore them all, since some of them have
the potential for driving paradigm shifts
you should not reject an idea as
outlandish simply because you can't think of a mechanism that explains it.
Despite huge advances in neurological research in recent years, no one has yet to
describe a physical mechanism for how we create and store memories, for example.
And since prodigious memory is a trait common to all savants, it stands to reason
that savants have something to show us. It is a rare physician who takes time to
understand these extraordinary people. For far too long, savants have been regarded
as exceptions, commented on in footnotes in medical school texts. But until and
unless we understand the phenomenon of the savant, we have little hope of
understanding the nature of mind itself.